Demystifying Pre-K Enrollment in NYC

Earlier this week, I attended a Pre-Kindergarten Enrollment Information Session in my borough of Queens.  Some of you may be puzzled knowing my daughter is only 2 and a half years old.  But that’s the neurotic side of me.  I attended the event in hopes to gain some insider or advanced information on my peers.  Who knew despite being a year early on the application process, I was already behind!  I did not heed the warnings of many a news articles on the competitiveness of Pre-Kindergarten enrollment.  Like many I’m sure, I figured this was for the rich kids attending private schools.  Hearing the term Universal Pre-K, I never really grasped what it really meant and interpreted it only to be something that every kid was entitled to.  That is true to a certain extent… if you can find a spot in the already crowded system.

I definitely recommend all parents with children attend an information session as early as they can.  They do not check the age of your children during the information session and while the information for enrollment pertains to that particular application pool year — this year for children born in 2006 — most of it will remain relevant for your child’s application period.  I also recommend that this not be the only information session you attend.  You should also attend the one that does pertain to your child’s application pool year.

What I did learn was the clarification between Public School UPK (Universal Pre-Kindergarten) and CBO (Community Based Organizations) UPK.  There is NO difference.  The development of the UPK system was simply an attempt to expand the recommended Pre-Kindergarten program and make it accessible to everyone despite the inability for the existing Public Schools to hold them.  CBO’s are paid by New York State to operate NYC Department of Education UPK programs.  What that translates to is ALL UPK programs are identical – whether in Public Schools or CBO’s.  All UPK programs are overseen by the individual borough program directors with instructor training by them as well.  Schools are visited every year to ensure compliance with the NYS and NYC guidelines and expectations.

All of that is in fact wonderful news to my ears.  I somehow had associated CBO’s to be better by merely being private organizations, but they are structured according to the same curriculum as Public Schools. Here is where I see the differences and more concerns have risen.  I was surprised to find out that State funded UPK provides for only 2.5 hours of teaching.  Understanding the variety of programs available from the 2.5-3 hour program, the 6-6.5 hour program and the full working day program made me think that not all programs are created equally despite their earnest attempts to reassure us they are the same.  While the core curriculum I assume is the same, would you not assume that the programs that extend for 6-6.5 hours or full working day would be more beneficial for a child than the shorter program?  When you hear that some Public Schools have extended 6-6.5 hour programs at their own funding expenditures — does it not make you wonder why a program that is not mandatory for 4 year old’s has certain schools making that investment beyond what is already a “gift” merely by its availability?

Examining closer, despite the efforts to streamline the process and make it more simplified, its hard to imagine that all programs are created equally.  I found more flaws that leave me flabbergasted.  Keeping in the mindset that all UPK programs in theory ARE the same, one would think — great!  I’ll apply to the Public School system UPK.  Here’s the caveat — if you can find a seat!  The program structure guidelines are strict.  Classes are maxed out at a 18 students : 1 teacher : 1 paraprofessional ratio.  Each school has 1-3 classes.  Some operate a morning or afternoon short program (2.5-3 hours) or a long program (6-6.5 hours).  Understanding their priority levels leaves you even more frustrated.  While I understand the School Chancellors attempt and reasoning for keeping siblings together, but by prioritizing an already overcapacity system, single-child households are at a severe disadvantage.  Siblings of children already attending a zoned Public School up to 5th grade with a UPK program get highest priority.  The priority ladder is strict and lengthy, more information can be found here.  Often the case, siblings of children already attending a zoned public school applying are often ALREADY more than the available seats in that school.  That leaves all the other priority levels irrelevant at that point.  Of that pool, for example 58 students with older siblings already attending that zoned Public School will compete in a lottery for the available 18 seats.  Those 18 seats could be either the short or long program.

In my case, my zoned school only offers the short program.  In the priority level, my daughter would be at the bottom of the barrel without a sibling already in the system.  Ideally I would like her to attend the long program — mindset still being that the longer program is IN FACT better than the short program, but that’s just me.  Unfortunately the nearest long program is NOT her zoned school and that would place her further on the priority list of that school.

So what is one to interpret?  Your best shot is to apply to your zoned school without a sibling already in the public school system.  You’ll simply have to accept that they may only have the short program and suck it up even if you think the long program is better.  That still is operating on the idea that your priority level will even come close to being reached.  Looking at the detailed previous year reports, it doesn’t leave anyone very confident that their first child will ever get into even their zoned school.

To make it seem less daunting, they do allow you to apply in (your) PRIORITY level to as many schools as you choose.  Your choice not to put your zoned school as first choice, is your own to make. If I understand correctly, you’d be stupid not to.  Despite it being a long shot, you’d still have a better chance at getting in there than any other school where you’re even further down the priority chain.  It made me laugh that they still kept reiterating to please only apply to schools you would definitely attend.  So your first choice, if you’re lucky to get it, should be your first choice.  But if you get you 10th choice, you should still be happy to have gotten it and want to go there because obviously the previous choices exhausted their priority levels before getting to you.  So how exactly do you prioritize?!  I really want the long program at the Public School UPK program but it’s not my zoned school. My zoned school only has the short program offered in both the AM and PM.  I know I have a better shot at getting in (as if) into the zoned program than the out of zone long program, but I would prefer the out of zoned long program to the zoned short program.  DILEMMA!

So where does that put us now.  The other option is CBO’s of course.  If you thought the process for the Public School UPK was frustrating… you’ll want to do something awful when treading this pond.

This is where those crazy people were applying for Pre-School when their children were born.  We thought they were nuts, afterall I wasn’t going to be able to afford sending my kids to Dalton or Chapin.  But they might just be the smarter bunch of the pack.  In theory, CBO’s UPK should be identical to the Public School UPK program.  Both 2.5 hours of the program ARE free.  If a public school offers a longer program, that also is free as they have found funding elsewhere in their budget.  Applying for a CBO is a whole other SEPARATE process.  Being that seats at the public schools are hard to come by, applications to CBO’s become almost mandatory if you want a seat anywhere.  In fact if you’re smart, you’d apply to as many Public School UPK programs you can or want to attend, in priority of course, as well as apply to as many CBO UPK programs.

When applying to CBO’s, you apply to EACH INDIVIDUAL CBO.  What that translates to is separate applications to EACH school.  If you want to get a seat anywhere,  that means you may have to apply to many schools.  While their application timetable should be similar to the Public School UPK process, it can vary somewhat and you are expected to find out that information yourself.  While the program curriculum itself is overseen by the Department of Education, the selection process is NOT.  They can accept applications or be put on a waiting list for their desired programs it seems, anytime.  That’s how some people apply or get wait-listed the minute their child is born, leaving others already too late to get in.  The UPK program is FREE and they cannot require you to attend their extended tuition based programs as a stipulation but many programs have been know to show PRIORITY to those children who do.  Some cases are known to enroll their children in the schools Day Care program as soon as entry is allowed, just to guarantee a spot in their UPK program with an understanding that their child will also attend the extended PAID program as well.  Is that fair?  Nope.  Is there anything you can do about? Complain to some higher authority?  Nope.

If this can be even considered an upside to Public School UPK, it does NOT matter when you send in your application as long as you do by the deadline for your application pool — those with kids born in 2006, that means April 9th 2010.  If you’re at the bottom of the priority chain, you’ll still be at the bottom of the priority chain.  Those with MULTIPLES can take heart, there is a section in the Public School application that helps to keep your little ones together if you choose to do so.  You do have to fill out a separate application for each of the individual multiple and list the sibling in that section to keep them together.  For the singletons again, that means those triplets with siblings in a zone school with only 18 seats available, they just took up 1/6th of the class.

All I can say is — Thank God I’m as neurotic as I am… but obviously not neurotic enough as it seems I might have missed the boat on getting my kid into the BEST Pre-K…

To find out more information, visit  the New York City Department of Education website.  Sign up for email updates and information as soon as possible from them here.  You’ll want to download the 2010-11 Pre-Kindergarten Directory which contains a list of all the Public School UPK programs as well as a (partial) list of CBO UPK programs.  Statistics are provided for the previous application year which includes how many seats were available and how many applicants there were for that program.  Also included are the number of available seats for the upcoming school year broken down by AM or PM program as well as Full Day (long program).  This information is NOT available for CBO UPK programs.  The application available in the directory is ONLY for Public School UPK programs.  Applications for CBO UPK programs are available through each individual program.

All in all, you want to get your child into any UPK program because as I understand it, you child will be less likely to be incarcerated if you do so.

About Suzanne Chan

Suzanne is student, daughter, wife, (labor & delivery) certified registered nurse, certified lactation counselor, friend, entrepreneur and blogger – but the job she's most proud of is mother… She shares her journey on this blog and The Disney Files. Read more about her here.

  • Hue-Kan

    Thanks for this article! Very informative. If you think you’re late, I’m a year behind you.

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  • Gail

    BLECH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You got to be kidding me. Maybe Sean will stay at Ivy’s until Kindergarten.

  • Lesley

    thanks for the post. i know.. ive been reading a lot on the parents yahoo groups (for FH and Dumbo) how stressful signing your kid up is. i will probably sign my son up to the local schools in my area.. but ive been hearing how frustrated parents are with these long wait lists and no other options and priority given to siblings, etc. i will probably sign up next year for pre-k, but wont be too frazzled b/c i think i will keep him in his daycare that he is attending now until he is 5.

  • Wow. This is my first visit to your site, and your blog look wonderful. I just now subscribed to your rss. Thanks!

  • shiva

    My child doesn’t have a sibling, she didn’t get in thru UPK in public schools. CBO UPK is not good around here, they just let kids run amok for 2.5 hrs.
    Your reasoning is right, there is a disparity bw. public school & CBO UPK.

  • George

    Thank you so much for posting this. It’s helped get us on the right track as parents of a 3 year old in the nyc school system just now starting to think about all this stuff.

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  • Rita

    Funny you mention. My eldest attended a special public school in queens. Her siblings are triplets who got priority to a special sibling pool for all day per k. One ballot was chosen and all three got in. We took 3 of the 18 spots. Boy was I thrilled.

  • Upset Mom!

    What about people who lie about where they live to get into schools out their zones and district! They frustrate me, cause they get the seat and My daughter does not!

  • Cisa19

    You seem just as neurotic as I am! Great post this is exactly what I went through. My son just got into a short program in prek and starts in dec. I even contemplated moving out of the city closer to my husband job. I would love to read your blogs. How would I o about doing that?

  • I guess I got lucky, we were accepted to two CBO’s and a public UPK with a arts base. I applied to MANY schools, some way out of the way, but all with good ratings and extra programs. All of the schools that I applied to were for full day programs and we visited a few CBO’s as well.

    I just want to add that the application period begins around March, do visit schools. It is free to apply to as many public UPK programs as you could want so definitely take advantage of that, even if you are out of the district (I did not apply within my district btw). Ask questions, look at classes in session, ask the teachers how they feel about the school. Find out where your CBO’s are and visit them too, don’t assume they will be expensive because they are private, if they accept UPK then it is free (+/- early/late drop off and dismissals).

    What really clenched our enrollment in a CBO was being told that we could visit during an upcoming program. I was able to see my daughter interact with other kids, and I asked the parents a lot of questions. I didn’t know to do that, and would highly recommend before paying any enrollment fee’s to anyone to ask to attend an upcoming program or even pta meeting… something where you can talk to other parents. And of course, look the schools up on and other online forums.

  • Very insightful article. Thanks for posting. My daughter is 3 1/2 and born in February, so she will have to wait until 4 1/2 for UPK, which is frustrating enough as she is ready now. I have subscribed to the alerts regarding UPK so that I will know important dates. I will also include a date on my calendar. I do have a few connections that I can inquire with, so I am hoping that will hope. I’d urge you to start making connections as we can all use all the help we can get to ensure our children get the best education possible.

    Thanks again and good luck to all!

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  • Vanessa

    I found your article doing a search to see if, indeed, CBOs are really free for Pre-K. I’ve started my search a year early, and already I could not find any information on the CBO’s individual sites indicating that you wouldn’t have to pay tuition. Now I understand a lot better and fee more confident writing to them asking for the “free” program. I also understand that that puts me to the bottom of yet another list. Thanks so much for this info!

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