Stuff You Should Know: How NYC School Zones and Districts Work

Posted On Thu, April 28, 2016 By

Posted On Thu, April 28, 2016 By In City Living, Features, NYC Guides, Policy, stuff you should know

Photo by Mary Frost of the Brooklyn Eagle

It’s a longstanding New York City tradition—families relocating to live in a desirable school district or zone. Currently, all five of the city’s boroughs are divided into districts and zones and both come with their own currency. Districts, which usually cover large swaths of a borough, impact students’ middle school and in some cases, high school choices. Zones, by contrast, can run just a few blocks and are usually the sole criteria for assigning students to schools at the elementary level. Like many things in New York City, however, a block can make a world of difference.

In some neighborhoods, such as the Upper East Side, scoring an address on one side of the street will put your child into one of the city’s the most desirable school zones and districts. An address on the opposite side of the street will leave you with limited public school choices in a zone and district that is home to some of the city’s most poorly performing schools. For parents looking to buy or rent and for real estate agents and brokers, it is important to understand the school zone and district map and how school choice is impacted by these boundaries.

nyc school districts


Clara Hemphill is the editor of Inside Schools—a website hosted by the Center for New York City Affairs—which provides detailed statistics and reviews on every public school in the city. As Hemphill explains, “In New York, there are 32 school districts and about 750 school attendance zones, and certainly, school attendance zones are an important consideration for parents choosing an apartment.” Hemphill adds, “School enrollment has boomed in the past 10 years in school districts that are considered desirable, like District 2 in Manhattan and District 15 in Brooklyn, and declined in districts that are considered undesirable, like District 5 in Harlem and District 16 in Brooklyn.” Not surprisingly, this trend is not without its problems.

A recent study by the Center for New York City Affairs reports that schools are often even less diverse than the neighborhoods in which they are located. “In East Harlem, Central HarlemFort Greene and Bedford Stuyvesant, the schools are more segregated than the neighborhoods,” says Hemphill, “That is, middle class parents are voting with their feet and refusing to send their children to the neighborhood school.” Where are they going? In most cases, parents with the means to do so are finding ways to send their kids to either public gifted schools, charter schools or private schools. In some cases, they are also going shopping for schools outside their zone or district, since spots do occasionally open up, even in highly desirable schools.

However, the New York City Department of Education stands by the city’s approach to assigning schools, specifically at the elementary level where zones matter most. Devora Kaye, a spokesperson for the DOE, explains, “School zones have existed for several decades, and while most students attend kindergarten at their zoned school, there are schools without a zone that give priority to applicants based on other criteria—Districts 1, 7, and 23 are choice districts.” Kaye further emphasizes, “There are also additional elementary school options, and we continue to work with superintendents, Community Education Councils, and parents and families to offer programs and enrollment policies that serve communities’ needs.”

Brooklyn Heights schools


Despite the DOE’s best intentions, there is no question that some zones and districts continue to be favored over others. Hemphill reports that the most sought after school districts include District 2, which runs south of 96th Street on the east side and south of 59th Street on the west side but excludes the Lower East Side (the LES has long been represented by a separate school district); District 15, which includes Park Slope, Sunset Park, and Cobble Hill; and District 26, which covers Bayside in Queens. What is the cost of living in a desired school district?

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