How to be totally prepared to apply to NYC Pre-K and still completely fail.

A few months ago I wrote a post titled “How to apply to NYC Pre-K and look ridiculous doing it.” The purpose was to share a spreadsheet that I built to understand which schools we should apply to, and how we should rank them. The secondary purpose was to highlight the absurdity of the application process. I thought that by creating a weighted ranking model to truly understand our options, Jana and I could maximize our chances of getting our daughter into a Pre-K close to both our apartment and our existing daycare. Boy, was I wrong.

As I went about sharing my spreadsheet and all of the information that I had learned, I kept repeating the same thing to people:

Even though I feel pretty damn prepared, I realize we may not get into any of the 12 programs that we applied to.

And we didn’t.

Now, even though I knew this could happen, I was shockingly dumbstruck when we received the letter telling us that Olive hadn’t gotten into a single program we applied for. No amount of preparation seemed to matter! She was given a seat at a Pre-K Center in the Financial District. Now, you have to understand that we live in Yorkville, a quiet little corner of the Upper East Side near the river. We are lucky enough to live right near the new Q train, which would make this twice-daily trip possible.

But the Financial District is not a place I want to drag a bleary-eyed 4-year-old to and from every day.

What’s the big deal?

You may be thinking to yourself: What does this kale–chewing, liberal coastal elite living in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the country have to complain about? He has a Pre-K seat in the greatest city in the world, and he should shut up about it. And you know what, you may have a point there. However, not everyone who lives in the Upper East Side is a member of the 1%. There are normal New Yorkers here too!

The purpose of this post isn’t to whine about not getting our first choice—rather, it is to highlight the undeniable fact that New York City needs to greatly expand the “Universal” Pre-K program to cover all of the 4-year-olds in every neighborhood.

I’m going to focus on my neighborhood here, with the understanding that there are undoubtedly other areas of New York that need attention from the mayor’s office as well. The Upper East Side in particular though seems to suffer from a problem that I’ve (anecdotally) heard from many New Yorkers: City Hall expects many parents in our neighborhood to send their kids off to private school.

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this—some parents will indeed send their kids to private school. But when there are 900+ families applying to Pre-K, and less than 600 seats, there’s a problem. The Upper East Side actually lost 22 seats from the previous school year, while the number of Pre-K applicants continues to rise. I don’t have current numbers citywide, but this Inside Schools post from 2013 (and its data showing that 30% of NYC families did not receive a Pre-K seat) shows that the problem hasn’t been solved.

I’m also going to include some commentary from my friend, and fellow Tinker Tree parent Sarah Chu here, who was kind enough to be interviewed for this post (her daughter Bella is successfully enrolled in Pre-K now, after having been waitlisted for weeks into the 2016–2017 school year). #SheDefinitelyPersisted

What can Upper East Side parents do?

Our City Council Member, Ben Kallos, is holding a rally with UES parents on Sunday, April 30, at 1 p.m. at St. Catherine’s Park (1st Ave & 67th St) to ask the Department of Education to add 300 more seats. You should totally attend!

Just tell me about the waitlists!

Alright, alright—let’s shift gears, and talk about what happens if you’re waitlisted for any of the schools you applied to. Now, you have chosen to live in New York City, in which the simple act of standing on line at Bed Bath & Beyond may become a competitive activity. Were you silly enough to think that getting your kid into a decent NYC school would be easy? Shame on you, silly new parent!

What do I do if I get waitlisted?

The first thing to do is call the program to find out where on the waitlist you stand for each program. The Department of Education distributes the lists to each school, and the onus is on you, the parent, to pick up the phone and ask them for your child’s number.

Inefficient? Yes. Unfair? Yes. Appropriate for NYC? Definitely.

There is something important to note here: You will encounter many helpful people on this journey (and it may be a multi-day journey), and you may also encounter some super–cagey, unhelpful people as well. When dealing with people who are reticent to divulge the information you seek, remember the golden rule… and also that they’ve probably already answered 300 phone calls asking the same question. And they’ve probably dealt with some crazy parents along the way, so try not to take it personally.

Example question, literally asked of me 9 out of 12 times: “Are you zoned for our school?” Appropriate answer: “No, but we did apply to your school, and have a Department of Education document saying we are on the waitlist—if you could help me out by letting me know what number my child is on the list, I would really, really appreciate it. Thank you so much!”

What does it mean to be waitlisted?

When you are waitlisted, it simply means that you did not get into that specific program, and you have been placed on a (very fluid) list to receive a potential offer at a later date.

If I accept an offer, will I be bumped off waitlists?

No! This may seem counter–intuitive, but accepting an offer will not impact your chances of getting into the school of your dreams. You can even accept MULTIPLE offers in succession, sort of like being a salmon and laddering up to the river of your birthplace (or your dreams, as it may be). If that didn’t make any sense (hey, it happens to the best of us) I’ll make it clear:

You may accept multiple offers without impacting your chances of getting into a program that your child is waitlisted for.

How are these waitlists even prioritized?

They are prioritized by the Department of Education in the same exact manner as your application. UNLESS you were smart enough to know that you could get into a non–DOE daycare program that also runs a Pre-K program, thereby finding the ultimate loophole to the prioritization process, and making all other New York City parents who did not know this secret loophole hate you, until you offer to babysit for their kid so they can have a desparately needed date night.

Good god, what is Round 2? Should I apply?

Fantastic question, and this is one that completely stumped me until I was welcomed into the “So you didn’t get into any of the programs you applied to” circle of New York City parents. The short answer is YES. You should apply if there are new programs opening up in your neighborhood for Round 2, or if you would like to add some additional programs that you couldn’t / didn’t apply to in Round 1. Just like accepting an offer, there is zero downside to applying in Round 2. The only thing to keep in mind is that there’s no point in “re-applying” to the same programs—look for new ones, or others that you didn’t apply to in Round 1.

I’m an insane New York City parent, just tell me what I can do to get into the program of my choice!

Step 1: calm down. Step 2: Apply to Round 2. Step 3… wait for an offer from your waitlisted program(s). I’ve heard that (anecdotally) there used to be ways to “get an in” after your application had been processed… this was back in the days when each individual school controlled the waitlist. Now the Department of Education controls the list in a centralized fashion, and simply distributes them out to the schools. This is a much fairer system.

How often should I check the waitlist number?

Sarah recommends calling every few weeks, and keeping in mind that the lists will move rapidly within the first few days after offers have been sent out, and again right before the school year starts. She set up calendar events every week like a crazy person—a crazy smart person.

When and why do the lists move?

Aha! Again my friend Sarah is here to the rescue—she says that there are several factors at play:

  • Parents who are applying to private school will also apply to public school as a backup. This makes total sense, and causes the lists to move in a big way when these parents don’t register at the end of the summer.
  • There is a lot of movement at each deadline… when parents must accept Round 1 offers, Round 2 offers, etc the lists will move pretty dramatically. Definitely a good time to call the program for an updated number!
  • People will move to the ‘burbs! I know that it sounds crazy to you die-hard New Yorkers, but you have friends who will pack up and move upstate (or even to Jersey!) if they don’t get into the programs they want. It’s cool, just ask them to please relocate near a train station so you can come visit.

I’m exhausted just thinking about this.

You’re not alone, my friend! Congratulations on getting this deep into an area of knowledge that you’ll use once in your life (seriously, are you going to have more than one kid in New York City? You are? You’re crazy!)

I’ll hand if off to my friend Sarah Chu once more, to guide you through some final thoughts, questions, and commentary on the state of our city’s Pre-K:

There are lots of families who need Pre-K .

People like Sarah and I are lucky enough that we could handle a situation without free Pre-K. There are many, many people in New York who could not—and surprisingly enough, there are many in our neighborhood. Sarah says that without a seat for everyone, it makes it incredibly difficult for middle-class or lower-income families to plan—or even get by—in the city.

City Hall sees the entire Upper East Side as uber–affluent.

Sarah says that the city doesn’t see the problem—not everyone who lives here is your stereotypical 1-percenter who lives on Park Avenue (that last part is my words, not hers). The assumption is that the UES doesn’t need the city’s assistance. Sarah says that “there are families that really suffer when there’s not enough public parks or public school seats.”

Universal Pre-K is a massive benefit.

Sarah also says that “part of the reason Pre-K seats matter is that they make a tangible difference in the lives of people who live here. Every single seat would be taken if there was more available.” There are Pre-K programs in the city that aren’t even filled, and “you would not find that here” she says, “if there were enough Pre-K seats.”

“There are families deserving of, and reliant upon, these kinds of public school services” she goes on to say. “There are families who really stretch to live here—they survive withmultiple kids in 1-bedroom apartments, just so they can get into good schools.”

Sarah also points out that “to add insult to injury, the city is expanding Pre-K to 3-year-olds — which is important and pedagogically critical — but to see that happening before fulfilling its promise to all the city’s 4-year-olds is beyond frustrating for families who need Pre-K on the UES.”

Thank you, and come to the UES Pre-K Rally!

Grab your very own copy of my ridiculous, weighted NYC Pre-K ranking model here, in the hopes that it will do you better in your journey than it did for me (make a copy from this Google Doc):

Our City Council Member, Ben Kallos, is holding a rally with UES parents on Sunday, April 30, at 1 p.m. at St. Catherine’s Park (1st Ave & 67th St) to ask the Department of Education to add 300 more seats. If you want more Pre-K in the Upper East Side, come rally with us!