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what you need to know

by molly o'meara sheehan

with 1.4 million school-aged children, new york city has the nation's biggest public school system, the densest concentration of private schools and admissions competition for the under-5 set so intense that it has inspired satirical novels and critically-acclaimed documentaries-while bewildering and frustrating countless parents. each year, rumors and misinformation about the availability of spots and what it takes to get into certain schools only make matters worse.

to help guide you through the city's various admissions processes, here's an overview of recent trends in admissions for nursery school along with answers to common questions and helpful resources.

the good news: if you apply to enough private preschools-and your list goes beyond the most competitive schools-you are likely to get in somewhere. (this is not the case with public pre-k, which is only offered to 4 year olds, and has recently seen an increase in applications.)

gina malin of the parents league, a nonprofit group supported by independent schools and member families, advises parents to contact "10 schools to get eight applications," but adds that "this isn't a hard and fast number." if you have twins or live in a family-heavy neighborhood like the upper east side, you should probably add a few more schools to the list.

as you are forming your list, it's especially important to contact the schools (or visit their websites) and note their systems for giving out applications (i.e. website, phone call or lottery). get out your calendar: many schools only give out applications on the day after labor day (and the most popular ones often run out by midday), while other schools offer applications more freely over the course of the fall.

take note of the minimum age of entry at schools that interest you, as well as the age at which the school has the most openings. manhattan has more programs that start closer to or at age 3 than those that start at age 2, but the number of schools offering classes for 2 year olds has expanded greatly in recent years. some schools that start at age 2 may take most of their students at that age, whereas other schools with programs for 2 year olds might have a greater share of their students starting at age 3.

if you do not receive any preschool acceptances or if you have moved to the city too late to apply, you can call the parents league to find schools with openings. executive director kathy shea says the number of parents who are rejected from all the preschools they apply to is "not huge" and "they pretty much get placed somewhere."

looking ahead? parents may have an unfounded fear that only the "right" preschool will guarantee entry to a good private kindergarten. wendy levey, founder and director of epiphany community nursery school, says that on the contrary, "ongoing schools are trying to take children from a variety of programs," an assertion backed by private schools' reports. at the same time, if parents applying to nursery school think they are likely to be applying to private school in a few years, they should inquire about a nursery school's track record for placing children in private school to ensure that it's a school with experience in ex-missions and has positive relationships with a lot of private schools.

parents must apply a full calendar year before their child would attend, so it's wise to start looking in the spring and the summer to be ready to get applications in the fall, advises roxana reid of smart city kids, an experienced admissions consultancy. again, you want to make sure you know whether a school you're interested in gives out its applications on the day after labor day. cultivate that interest, don't sabotage it.

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