Moving to a particular neighborhood in order to land a seat at a coveted public school has long been the middle-class modus operandi for obtaining a high-quality education in New York, where placement in many elementary schools is determined by home address.
But navigating school zones has become much trickier in the past few years as more families with young children put down roots in the city. Even living two blocks from a well-regarded public school no longer means your child will get in, and with many neighborhoods becoming increasingly expensive, it isn’t always possible to squeeze into a smaller apartment.
In November the attendance boundaries for Public Schools 321 and 107 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, were redrawn to relieve overcrowding, which was bad luck for families who had bought their homes specifically because of those schools and suddenly found themselves zoned for another.
Even without rezoning, families living in districts with overcrowded schools may find their best-laid plans upended. Last month, more than 2,300 children, or roughly 3 percent of applicants, were put on waiting lists for kindergarten seats at 105 schools, according to the Department of Education. Although the overall number of children on waiting lists is down slightly from last year, waiting lists at some schools soared.
The waiting list at P. S. 41 in Greenwich Village had 100 students, up from 55 last year, and the one at P. S. 307 in Queens had 167, up from 109. Many children on waiting lists end up securing spots as families of enrolled children pursue other options: moving away; placing their children in private schools or gifted-and-talented programs; or winning lotteries for charter-school admission.
But the wait to find out can be excruciating. By the end of June, those who remain on a waiting list will receive an offer of an alternative school.
All of this is forcing families to consider new ways to navigate the city school system. Some do school research even before a child is born. Other parents pay specialists to help identify neighborhoods with up-and-coming schools, the hope being that if they move to these places now, the school will have improved by the time their child reaches kindergarten.
Still others rent a home in a top school zone. Then, if they find themselves priced out when it comes time to buy an apartment, they’ll move to a more affordable neighborhood. The child will be able to stay put, schoolwise, because city policy is basically “once you’re in, you’re in.”
There have always been people who outright lie by borrowing an address from a friend or relative to get their children into a school. If caught, however, those students will lose their seats.
Sure, it’s easy to mock the neuroses of New York City parents when it comes to their offspring, as films and documentaries have done. But the city poses unique challenges, and as a result, more families are thinking earlier about where they want to live in relation to what it means for their children’s education.
“Anyone who thinks it through realizes you can’t count on one option,” said Christine Dirringer, a commodities banker who, with her partner, Keith Richards, also a commodities banker, is selling an Upper West Side two-bedroom and looking for a town house in Carroll Gardens or Park Slope. The reasoning: Both areas have good public and private school options and offer more space for the money.
Chloe, their daughter, hasn’t celebrated her first birthday yet.
“It’s crazy to be considering schools when she’s only 7 months old,” Ms. Dirringer said. “But I’d rather have a plan, knowing how difficult it can be to get in.”
Here are some of the ways families with young children are approaching the complicated calculus of real estate and education in the city.
Renting in a Good School Zone
Renting or buying in a given school zone may be the most straightforward strategy for getting into a popular public school. But neighborhoods with coveted public schools tend to be pricey. The good news is if you can’t afford to stay, your children don’t have to switch schools.
They have the right to remain in the same public school until graduation, regardless of where in the city the family lives after registration day, according to the Department of Education. The idea behind this longstanding regulation is to offer stability to children.
“Continuity and stability help teachers and schools tailor instruction for the needs of each child over the long term,” Devon Puglia, a spokesman for the Education Department, wrote in an e-mail. “When students jump from school to school either midyear or between grades, personalization is difficult.”
Some parents in overcrowded schools bristle at families who take advantage of the rule with no intention of staying in the neighborhood. But the Education Department does not track the movement of families after enrollment. And families who end up leaving the zone often would prefer to stay but can’t for financial reasons.
When Sundus Kubba moved from Ann Arbor, Mich., to take an investment banking job in New York four years ago, she and her husband, Joe Kazemi, a graduate student and independent statistician, searched for a rental that would put their daughter, Maya, within the zone for the highly sought-after P. S. 87 on the Upper West Side.
“We had to be very specific with addresses — what side of a street an apartment was on,” Mr. Kazemi recalled.
The couple rented a two-bedroom on the second floor of a walk-up two blocks from P. S. 87. In 2011, Maya began kindergarten at the school, which offers a dual-language program of English and Spanish and runs through fifth grade.
This year, with Maya in first grade, the family searched for a place to buy in the neighborhood but found nothing they could afford. So with the help of Stefania Cardinali, a broker at Citi Habitats, they began looking in Harlem and Hamilton Heights.
“We can get more for our money uptown,” said Mr. Kazemi, noting that the 15- to 25-minute subway commute wasn’t bad. Last month the couple went into contract on a two-bedroom two-bath apartment with a private rooftop cabana in a full-service building in Hamilton Heights for $680,000. A recent online search for a comparable place in the P. S. 87 zone found listings from $995,000 to $3.85 million.
Though school quality was a factor in their search, Mr. Kazemi added, the fact that Maya can remain at P. S. 87 is “fantastic for us.”
Now the family is zoned for P. S. 153, which has lower test scores than P. S. 87, but also has gifted-and-talented classes and language and art programs.
Find an Up-and-Coming School
School advisers say more parents are apartment-hunting in neighborhoods that offer promising schools with strong leadership and rising attendance rates, including Greenpoint and Windsor Terrace in Brooklyn, and parts of South Harlem, Inwood and Washington Heights in Manhattan.
For instance, respectable options like P. S. 180 in Harlem, which teaches prekindergarten through eighth grade, have remained under the radar mainly because they served a low-income community, said Clara Hemphill, the founder of Insideschools.org, a project of the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School that offers profiles of city schools.
“It was always a terrific school with a terrific principal,” Ms. Hemphill said, “but its test scores reflected the fact that poor kids tend not to get a fancy preschool education.” P. S. 180’s attributes, she added, include small classes and active parents. “Now, we’re seeing more middle-class parents choosing it.”
Julianna LeMieux, an assistant professor of biology at Mercy College, visited schools in Washington Heights, Harlem and the Upper West Side last June in preparation for a move from Boston; her husband, Mark Emerson, had accepted a new job. “We were willing to do whatever it took to get our sons into a good school,” she said.
That included squeezing themselves and their boys, 6 and 2, into a one-bedroom on the Upper West Side if necessary. But after visiting P. S. 180 and being impressed by the small class sizes and the diversity of the student population, she narrowed her search to condos in that school’s zone.
There were five listings in the Harlem area within their budget. The couple bought a two-bedroom with one and a half baths and a washer/dryer, listed for $520,000. Their elder son, Isaiah, began kindergarten in September at P. S. 180. Ms. LeMieux says the principal greets students by name each morning at drop-off.
“It ended up being a great match,” she added. “I can see Morningside Park from our window and like being so close to Central Park.” The number of children they saw in the neighborhood when they moved in, she added, “really spoke to the fact that this is probably going to be a good place, a comfortable place to have for years.”
A Developing Neighborhood
Schools don’t always follow their neighborhood’s upward trajectory. “Every neighborhood is different,” said Joyce Szuflita, the founder of NYC School Help, which helps families find schools in Brooklyn, “but what I find is the gentrification of the school lags many years behind a gentrification of a neighborhood. People occasionally move in when they’re pregnant and say this neighborhood is awesome and diverse and rich, and then their kids get to be school age and they’re like, huh?”
Many of those families, she said, end up trying to “squeak into the schools” in better-established neighborhoods nearby.
But there is often another contingent — a core group of new families who are “drawn to a school that looks promising,” Ms. Szuflita said.
Kelly Bare, an editor at The New Yorker magazine, and her husband, Jonathan Cohen, the music booker for “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” traded a studio on the Lower East Side for a two-bedroom rental in Prospect Heights about five years ago. Schools weren’t the first thing on their minds.
“We were just trying to wrap our heads around being parents,” said Ms. Bare, who was pregnant with their first child at the time.
In search of more space and a family-friendly vibe, she said, they were attracted by the neighborhood’s good transportation, proximity to Prospect Park and cultural institutions like the Brooklyn Museum — not to mention the more affordable rents.
But soon, apartment prices began to climb, and they had been hoping to buy.
The couple decided to hunt on the edge of the neighborhood, on the border of Crown Heights, where they would be able to afford more space.
But the school situation was mixed. While Public Schools 9 and 316 in Prospect Heights were gaining attention, P. S. 22 in Crown Heights was underperforming. Enrollment dropped, test scores remained low, safety concerns were raised and teachers complained of unresponsive and demoralizing leadership.
Nevertheless, in 2010 Ms. Bare and Mr. Cohen took the leap and bought a new three-bedroom condo on the Crown Heights border for about $600,000.
“We knew we could not afford to buy that kind of space in a zone where the schools were already proven,” Ms. Bare said. “We took a calculated risk — buying an apartment that we loved, on the edge of a neighborhood that we loved, in an area we presumed would change fairly rapidly.”
Part of the plan was to get involved in a local school and “actively recruit like-minded families,” Ms. Bare said. But ultimately, “we kind of took a gamble that our trajectory would be the same as the school trajectory.”
Timing, it turned out, was on their side. The following year the city announced that it would phase out P. S. 22 and replace it with P. S. 705, also known as the Brooklyn Arts and Science Elementary School, which shares a new building with Exceed Charter School and currently teaches through third grade and offers dual-language immersion starting in prekindergarten, as well as art, music, dance and fencing.
“It’s like a little gem,” said Ms. Bare, who enrolled Drew, 5, her older child, in prekindergarten and plans to have her daughter, Lizzie, 2, follow in 2015.