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New York education and international schools

For such a cosmopolitan hub, New York has a surprisingly limited choice of international schools but there are a host of local options, provided you can find a way to squeeze your children past the hordes of New Yorkers battering at the doors of the most desirable ones.

Perhaps this dearth of specifically international schools 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 (state) sector, which, at elementary level at least, has greatly improved.

In fact, one of the first decisions 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 options.

Up until the arrival of Covid, many more families chose to stay in the city, which together with the city’s rising pre-school population, meant that competition for places at top private and public schools had become fierce. This may change if work-from-home becomes the new norm and professionals decide to move permanently to their second homes, or their new house in the suburbs.

Should you decide to go down the international route, the choice, if not wide, is at least straightforward and comparatively stress-free.

International schools

Dominating the scene is the United Nations International School (UNIS) which offers the International Baccalaureate Diploma. Overlooking the East River, UNIS educates more than 1,600 sons and daughters of UN staff, foreign diplomats and assorted expats from all fields, plus a good sprinkling of native New Yorkers, who appreciate the international atmosphere. 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. It has been expanding through to age 18 and is the only NYC school to offer British IGCSEs and A Levels. 

Both schools are sited on the East River, a 20-minute walk south of the UN building. It’s not the leafiest place in New York, right next to the busy FDR Drive, but it’s very convenient for international diplomat parents.  Some will prefer the smaller size of BIS-NY, especially for younger children, while others love the buzz of UNIS, with students coming from over 100 countries. In both there is every chance you will make just as many new friends among the international families as your child does. 

UNIS also has a smaller campus in Queens for grades K-8 only. With just one class in each grade it claims to offer a “personalized education within a small and nurturing environment.” 

On the Upper West Side, dually accredited (by both American and British recognised agencies) Dwight School, established way back in 1872, was the first school in the USA to offer the full IB programme from the primary and middle years to the IB Diploma. Other IB schools to consider are Brooklyn Fields and Léman Manhattan, the latter having the only boarding programme in New York.

If you're set on the English national curriculum, there's a new, small, nurturing contender on the Upper East Side, Wetherby-Pembridge, part of the London-based Alpha Plus Group and currently expanding the grades through middle school.

The World Class Learning Academy joined the fray a few years ago, and soon became the Nord Anglia International School of New York for children They teach the IPC and IMYC curricula up to age 14 in a brand-new building in the shabby-chic East Village, and boast small average class sizes. Keep an eye out, too, for Avenues: The World Schooloffering "a global curriculum" and now attracting over 1,500 students. It’s location in fashionable Chelsea makes it, reportedly, popular with Wall Street execs, tech millionaires and celebrities. 

If applying to one of New York’s international schools, your best bet is to phone the admissions office and discuss your situation with them. UNIS and BIS-NY have become more competitive in recent years, but there is always a turnover of international families, and slots can often be found throughout the year. At UNIS, priority is given to UN permanent staff as well as diplomats at both the UN and Consulates. 

Finally, French-speaking families clamour for spots at the sought-after and famously hard to get into 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, La Scuola d' Italia.

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. 

The city’s elite schools include, for girls; Brearley, Chapin, Nightingale-Bamford and Spence. Boys’ options include; Collegiate, St Bernard’s and Browning. Whilst for co-ed there are; DaltonColumbia Grammar & Preparatory SchoolTrevor Day SchoolTrinity and Horace Mann (in The Bronx) . For New York parents with their sights set on Harvard, Yale or another Ivy League college, it all starts here.

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 assessment or playdate for the child and, from grade 2 up, an intelligence test, administered by the Educational Records Bureau (and often referred to as “the ERB”) or the newer Secondary School Admission Test (SSAT). Do check with each school, which one they require and if COVID has suspended the requirement. 

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 in September, but be quick as registration often closes in October. Each school registration will cost you about $75. Next, schedule school tours and interviews (phone the schools to do this) and book the appropriate test for your child. The ERB's website has useful examples of tests for all ages. Take time to study them as most New Yorkers prep their children or have them tutored.. 

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.

School fees are high compared to most cities and countries, due mainly to NYC's high teaching salary costs. Fees range from about $40k at UNIS to $58k at Avenues (and donations are often solicited on top). Financial aid is available at most schools, to varying degrees, but you must normally apply at the time of enrolment, often via an independent scheme called TADS. Avenues, for example, has $13m of aid available per year from grade 1 upwards

For more information on individual schools please go to the GSGI article 'Best schools in New York considered by expats' or go to each school’s individual entry on ‘The Good Schools Guide International’ search.

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 Enrolment Planning and Operations on (212) 374-2363 or check the map of the Department of Education.

Specialised Public Schools

Some elementary and middle schools offer fast-track academic programmes for gifted and talented children, and there are a few schools (such as Hunter College Elementary and High School and the K-8 Anderson School - M334) which are reserved solely for the academically able. However, the city's Gifted and Talented programme for elementary school has been suspended in 2021 and it is unclear if and when it will resume. Admission tests for selective or 'screened' middle schools, which currently educate 18 per cent of NYC pupils (aged 11-14), have, controversially, recently been shelved.

At high school level (grade 9-12) there are eight selective, specialised schools which any NY resident in grade 8 can apply for by taking a city-wide admissions test. There are limited places to enter in grade 10 too. These schools, which include Bronx High School of Science, Stuyvesant High School and Brooklyn Technical High School, are generally huge (many thousands of students) but it’s still highly competitive to gain a place (roughly one in five succeed).

The pressure continues to be intense throughout the four years and although the schools get amazing results, with high college acceptance rates, including Ivy Leagues, they are not for the faint-hearted. Of course they don’t have the small class sizes and personal touch of private schools, nor the facilities.

A ninth specialised school, Fiorella H. La Guardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts (known simply as La Guardia for obvious reasons) is located next to the Lincoln Center on the Upper West Side  has an incredible list of alumni in every arts discipline. Entry is by portfolio and/or audition, but the student’s academic record is also taken into account. 

Grades and curricula

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, so 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 (5-8 at UNIS) 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. 

Added Value

With that in mind, for an in-depth picture of all New York’s public schools, good and the bad, 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.

Update on Schools Reopening

After the mandatory school closure in March, and the long summer holidays, NYC public schools have had a bumpy few months since their (delayed) reopening in September. All the pupils are either on a hybrid system combining in-person with virtual learning or can choose to be fully remote. As the situation is constantly changing, it's best to visit NYC Department of Education for the latest news.

NYC private schools reopened in August/September but while many have the space to have everyone on site ( BIS-NY, NAISNY) others, like UNIS are running a hybrid system (attending school on alternate days) to maintain social distancing. In a few schools the younger pupils are on site while the older ones are working remotely. All private schools have to follow the Department of Health's regulations and revert to online learning for a whole grade or division for a period of time, if a certain number of positive cases are detected.

As in many other countries, even if students are on campus, no parents or other visitors are allowed for parent teacher meetings, concerts, coffee mornings or any other purpose. This can make it hard for parents to meet people and make friends, if you are new to the city, though the Parents Associations at some schools are offering virtual gatherings and activities, as a stop-gap measure.

Most schools are offering every student the option of learning from home full-time for health or transportation reasons and many have students joining virtually from other parts of the world, if they are temporarily unable to return to the USA. Check each school’s website, or ideally make a phone call, to determine their chosen system, and beware that the situation can change very quickly.

One advantage for those trying to research or choose a school from overseas is that schools are running quite sophisticated virtual school tours and information sessions. Now you can get a first-hand look at a dozen different schools from the comfort of your armchair. Just register on the website in good time, as some may cap their numbers. 

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