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Photo of the Battery Park School via Dattner Architects Photo of the Battery Park School via Dattner Architects
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.
"School enrollment has boomed in the past 10 years in school districts that are considered desirable"

Understanding New York City’s School Zones and 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.
“In East Harlem, Central Harlem, Fort Greene and Bedford Stuyvesant, the schools are more segregated than the neighborhoods ... That is, middle class parents are voting with their feet and refusing to send their children to the neighborhood school.”
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.”


The Cost of Buying in a Desired School Zone or District

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?

With few exceptions, desired school districts are predictably connected to higher housing prices. District 2 covers nearly all of Manhattan’s prime real estate markets, including the Upper East SideChelseaSohoTribeca and the West Village, and District 15 covers many of Brooklyn’s most affluent neighborhoods, including Park Slope. 
With few exceptions, desired school districts are predictably connected to higher housing prices.
To put everything into perspective, consider the cost of buying a townhouse in District 4, which is East Harlem, compared to the cost of buying a townhouse just a few blocks south in District 2. While it is still possible to purchase an entire townhouse in south District 3 for just over $2 million, in Carnegie Hill—the neighborhood located on the north end of District 2—townhouses generally start at $8 million and often sell for over 30 million depending on their size and condition. Similar disparities exist in Brooklyn between District 15, which includes Park Slope, and neighboring District 17, which includes Crown Heights.

Finally, while deals can still be found in some desirable school districts, including Sunset Park and Bayside, both neighborhoods are currently experiencing surging real estate values. Indeed, in 2015, the northeast section of Queens where Bayside is located reported double digit price increases, and the area’s great public schools are among the factors that continue to support its rising real estate values.

Can You Lie to the DOE About Your Address?

You can try to lie about your address, but don’t expect to get away with it—at least not in the long term.

First, you’ll need to bring two pieces of official documentation confirming that you are living where you claim to be living—for example, a lease, deed or mortgage and a utility bill. If you are living at an address where you are not the owner or leaseholder, you will still need to sign a residency affidavit. However, even after providing the required documentation, in some coveted zones, DOE staff have been known to make house visits to confirm one is living where they claim to be living. Nevertheless, some New Yorkers do try to cheat the system.
DOE staff have been known to make house visits to confirm one is living where they claim to be living.
Kevin, a university professor who lives with his family in Crown Heights, had no qualms about borrowing an address from a colleague in Soho when his daughter was starting kindergarten. “I don’t make enough to buy in Manhattan, so my wife and I bought in Brooklyn. When our daughter reached school age, I wanted her to go to a great school located in District 2 just around the corner from my office,” he explained, “So I just asked a colleague in the neighborhood if I could borrow her address.” While things worked out for Kevin and his daughter for the first year, as time wore on, their lie started to unravel. Kevin admits, “The PTA moms were on to us!” Thanks to his daughter’s brilliance, he was able to move her to a selective elementary school by second grade and dodge a DOE investigation.
What does the DOE think of city residents like Kevin? Not much. Indeed, the DOE has zero tolerance for parents who decide to not play by the rules. “If there’s a suspicion that a falsified address was used to register a student, the school initiates an address verification investigation within 30 days,” says Kaye, “As needed, the investigation is escalated to the Borough Field Support Center and Executive Director of Borough Enrollment. If a student is deemed ineligible after this investigation, the family will receive a written notice and has a right to appeal the results of the investigation.” Unless the appeal is successful, the student will be placed at “an appropriate school based on proof of address.”

While sympathetic to parents searching for the best possible public school for their child, Hemphill also strongly advises against attempting to cheat the system. What is Hemphill’s advice to parents worried about the assigned school choice for their child? “Sometimes desirable schools have spaces available in early September or even October. I advise parents to try then,” she says, “But better still, see if you can improve your neighborhood school. That’s what parents in the Bedford Stuyvesant Parents Committee are doing.”
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Contributing Writer Cait Etherington Cait Etherington has over twenty years of experience working as a journalist and communications consultant. Her articles and reviews have been published in newspapers and magazines across the United States and internationally. An experienced financial writer, Cait is committed to exposing the human side of stories about contemporary business, banking and workplace relations. She also enjoys writing about trends, lifestyles and real estate in New York City where she lives with her family in a cozy apartment on the twentieth floor of a Manhattan high rise.
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