Education in New York City: an overview
(Photo credit: The British International School of New York)
For such a cosmopolitan hub, New York has a surprisingly limited choice of international schools.
But perhaps this is to be expected. Language is after all not a barrier, and the curriculum is broadly similar to that which you will find in Britain. So plenty of expats opt to send their offspring to the city’s many excellent and even famous private schools, while a good number plump for the public sector, which, at elementary level at least, has greatly improved.
So the first decision you will make when relocating to Manhattan is whether to go the usual expat route and send your children to one of the city’s handful of international schools, or, instead, compete for a place at a local private or public school.
If the latter appeals, be warned that over the last decade many more families have chosen to stay in the city rather than flee to the suburbs. This, together with the city’s rising pre-school population, means that competition for places at top private and public schools is far fiercer than it used to be. You will need sharp elbows and a New York attitude.
Should you decide, on the other hand, to go the international route, the choice, if not wide, is at least straightforward and comparatively stress-free.
Dominating the scene is the United Nations International School (UNIS), which offers the International Baccalaureate. Overlooking the East River, UNIS educates more than 1,600 sons and daughters of UN staff, foreign diplomats and assorted internationals, between the ages of five to eighteen. Right next to it is the British International School of New York (BIS-NY), combining the National Curriculum for England with the IB Primary and Middle years curricula for children up to the age of fourteen.
Both schools are sited on the East River, possibly not the leafiest place in New York but very convenient for international diplomat parents. BIS-NY may be much smaller than its neighbour but is on an attractive, modern, waterside campus, occasionally windy but nothing unusual in that for British expats. The admissions staff are flexible, competition for places is low-key, and there is every chance you will make just as many new friends among the international families as your child does. Expanding organically, the inaugural Year 10 (9th grade) started in 2018.
On the opposite side of Central Park, dually accredited Dwight School offers the full IB programme from the primary and middle years to the IB Diploma
Elsewhere, French-speaking families clamour for spots at the sought-after Lycée Francais de New York on the Upper East Side. Those who fail to get in settle for the tiny École Internationale, a bilingual school near Gramercy Park. And there is a small but popular Anglo-Italian school on East 96th Street.
The World Class Learning Academy joined the fray a few years ago, and shortly after opening became the Nord Anglia International School of New York. They teach the IPC and IMYC curricula in a brand new building in the now fully gentrified East Village.
Grades and Curriculum
The education system in New York starts at Kindergarten (from the age of 5) progresses to Grade 1 and finishes at Grade 12. Children embark on their formal schooling one year later than in Britain. Thus Kindergarten would be British Year 1. There is no exact equivalent to British Reception. The closest is “Pre-K” (formerly known as nursery school), but it is generally less academic—no phonics, for example.
Elementary school encompasses grades 1-5, middle school covers grades 6-8 and high school grades 9-12. A school that takes your child right through would be dubbed “K-12”.
In the early years, reading, writing and mathematics tend to move at a noticeably slower pace than in Britain, with concepts such as multiplication and division not entering the classroom before Grade 2 (British Year 3). Bear this in mind if your kids are young, your relocation is a short one, and you plan to return to a competitive British school. The academics tend to even out by middle school, and in some New York schools the pressure can become very intense indeed.
How to Apply
If applying to one of New York’s international schools, your best bet is to phone up the admissions office and discuss your situation with them. UNIS has become more competitive in recent years, but there is always a turnover of international families, and slots can usually be found at most levels, throughout the year. The same is also mostly true, for now, of the British International School. New York’s French Lycée is famously hard to get into; there are simply too few places for too many applicants.
New York private schools
Generalising wildly, New York’s private schools can be divided into the uptown schools, many of which are single sex and Anglophone in style (uniforms, school traditions, etc), and the more eclectic` downtown schools, where the pottery studio is as important as the library. The largest concentration of private schools, and of the pre-schools that groom children for them, is on the Upper East Side.
NB There are probably more excellent resources on NY private schools than for any other city in the world, so the GSGI has concentrated on write-ups for some of the lesser known international schools mentioned above. This is not to say the schools below wouldn't make the GSGI grade....just that, for now, you can find plenty of info elsewhere.
The city’s elite schools include: for girls, Brearley, Chapin, Nightingale-Bamford and Spence; for boys, Collegiate; for co-ed, Dalton, Horace Mann and Trinity. For New York parents with their sights set on Harvard or another Ivy League college, it all starts here. You can get a flavour for the scene, or one side of it at least, on the Urban Baby website, where schools-obsessed mothers squabble endlessly about which school is “top tier”.
To secure a slot at a New York private school, you will generally have to apply a year in advance. Be prepared for a certain amount of rigmarole. Most schools require a tour, an interview for parents, an intelligence test (administered by the Educational Records Bureau and known as “the ERB”) and an assessment or playdate for the child.
It is wise to apply to a number of schools (some experts suggest as many as eight) to cover your bases. Call the schools up before applying, as many of them have different requirements; some, for example, ask for a letter of recommendation from a friend of the family.
Register online at the schools’ websites shortly after Labour Day. Be quick – registration often closes in October. Each school registration will cost you about $75. Next, schedule school tours and interviews (phone the schools for to do this) and book the ERB for your child.
The ERB can be booked online, and costs up to $500. Candidates coming from abroad can take the tests at the ERB’s midtown offices on 42nd Street. The results are sent to you and the schools you are applying to.
The age of your child will determine the kind of test to be taken (for older children, for example, it includes a handwritten essay). The ERB’s website has useful examples of tests for all ages. Take time to study them. Most New Yorkers prep their children. For kindergarten kids, useful prep tools include “Mighty Mind”, a block design game, and “Brain Quest”, a series of quiz cards.
It is all rather time-consuming, and no mean feat to arrange from abroad. Some parents choose to pay a private schools consultant to help them navigate the process (or manage the entire procedure for them), (and in the interests of full disclosure if not modesty, reputable advisory services of course include the GSG Advice Service).
Another resource, The Parents’ League, can let you know of possible openings at the 300 private schools on its membership list—useful if you’re applying from abroad, and if you’ve got kids at tricky ages for entry. You can call them on +1 212 737-7385. Whatever you decide, a visit to New York for the various tests and tours is usually unavoidable, so you should plan accordingly.
Last but not least, when studying the eye-watering fees for New York’s private schools, it is worth noting that parents are often expected to make significant donations on top. This can bring your annual bill up to around $40,000 per child. No small sum, even if the company is picking up the tab.
Public (state) schools
Bear in mind three points when considering New York’s public education for your child. Firstly, while Manhattan has many good elementary public schools, strong middle schools and high schools are harder to find. Secondly, sought-after elementary schools are increasingly over-subscribed; basing yourself near your chosen school is no longer a guarantee of a place. Last but not least, in order to apply at all, you must first be resident in Manhattan (no minimum time; you just need an address).
New York is divided into educational districts, and then subdivided into “zones”, or neighbourhoods. Most children attend the elementary school they are “zoned” for. The picture becomes more complex at middle and high school level (many zones do not have a middle school, for example). To find out which school you are zoned for, call New York’s central Office of Student Enrollment Planning and Operations on (212) 374-2363 or check the map of the Department of Education.
Some elementary and middle schools offer fast-track academic programmes for clever children, and there are a few schools (such as Hunter College and the Anderson Program at Public School 9) that are solely reserved for the academically able. Children take an IQ test administered by New York’s Department of Education. You can apply to be tested for a “gifted and talented” programmes on the Department of Education’s website.
We think it's a bit dicey recommend other public schools just now in the GSGI, and far less predictable than private schools as everyone we talk to tells us something different. For example, PS xx, once considered top-notch, is said to be faltering by some, and while some parents love PS xxx, others cannot wait to get their kids out. Hunter and Anderson seem to be the standard-bearers, and consistently good.
With that in mind, for an in-depth picture of all New York’s public schools, good as well as dodgy, you can’t do better than InsideSchools.org , a non-profit website, which contains reviews of New York’s public schools, as well as parent comment, regular columns and advice.