New to NYC Schools

New York City has a complicated public school system that's not easy to navigate. It has some of the best schools in the country as well as some that struggle to provide even a basic education.

Some neighborhoods have excellent zoned schools, and all you need to do to enroll your child is to show up with proper documents. But if you are not satisfied with your neighborhood school, you may want to explore other options.

The city has an extensive system of school choice, and, depending on the age of your child and where you live, you may have a number of alternatives. Insideschools is an independent website designed to help you get the best education for your child. See our pages on elementary schools, middle schools and high schools to explore the possibilities.

In general, younger children (ages 5 to 10) may register directly at their neighborhood school, while older children (11 and older) must first go to a Family Welcome Center.

Call 311 (from outside New York City call (212) NEW-YORK) and give the operator your address and your child's age. The operator will tell you whether to go directly to your zoned school or to an Family Welcome Center. (You may also write your address in the search engine on the Department of Education website.) Bring your child and the following documents: proof of address (a lease and utility bill), proof of your child's age (a passport or birth certificate), school records if you have them, and immunization records.

In some circumstances, nonresidents may pay tuition to attend New York City public schools. (However, nonresidents may not enroll in specialized high schools or gifted and talented programs.)

A child's legal residence is the home of his parents or legal guardian. If a child's parents are separated or divorced, the child's residence is with the parent who has primary physical custody. Sometimes parents try to pretend their child lives with a relative so he can go to a better school, but it's risky. School officials may make a home visit to see if a child actually lives at the given address. They sometimes even check closets for clothes and toys.

If you move within the city, your child may continue to attend his old school until graduation or transfer to a school in his new community.

If you are homeless or living in temporary housing, your child has a right to attend school either in your temporary community or at his original school. You don't need documents or proof of residency. Call the Advocates for Children hotline at (800) 388-2014 if you are homeless and need help enrolling your child.

Any child between the ages of 5 and 21 who has not graduated from high school is entitled to a free public education.

This includes undocumented immigrants, children with disabilities, children who do not speak English, pregnant girls, homeless children, and older teenagers who may have dropped out of school.

School officials must find a space for your child without delay. If there is no room in your neighborhood school, your child may be assigned to another school.

Kindergarten is a right. Children have the right to enroll in school in September of the year they turn 5. They are not required to attend school until they are 6 years old. (There are a limited number of free pre-kindergarten programs for 4-year-olds.)

You do not need a green card or a Social Security number to register your child.

You may not register or apply to schools until you actually live in the city.

Children who don't speak English well are entitled to special classes in English as a second language (ESL). When your child starts school, teachers will give her a test to see if she needs help improving her English. Parents who don't speak English are entitled to translations of all important documents and interpreters for meetings with teachers and school staff.

If your child receives ESL instruction, she will generally attend regular classes with English-speaking children for most of the day. She will get extra help for an hour or more a day from a specially trained ESL teacher. Almost all schools in the city offer ESL instruction.

If you prefer, your child may be able to attend bilingual classes. Bilingual classes offer students instruction in English part of the day and in their native language the rest of the day. This allows students to make progress in academic subjects like math and science in their native language while they are learning English. This is also called "transitional bilingual" because children gradually use more English and less of their native language. Not all schools offer bilingual instruction, but if at least 15 children in the same grade speak the same language the school is supposed to offer it.

Some schools also offer dual-language classes. These schools teach children to read, write and speak fluently in both English and another language. Generally, half the students are native speakers of English while half speak the other language (Spanish, Chinese, French, Haitian Creole, Russian or Korean). Dual-language programs allow children to maintain and perfect their native language while learning English, and allow English speakers to become fluent in a second language.

Almost every school in the city has at least a few children who are learning English, but there are several dozen schools designed especially for English language learners (ELLs), including older students who are new to the United States. Look for the "new immigrants" icon on the "Find a School" advanced-search function.

If you have trouble getting the classes you think your child needs, call the Advocates for Children hotline, (866) 427-6033, Monday through Thursday from 10 am to 4 pm.