by Liz Willen
There's no way of getting around the constant search for schools in New York City -- from getting into pre-kindergarten (far more complicated than necessary this year) to finding a good neighborhood school to choosing a district with enough reasonable middle school choices to mitigate the nagging "what's next?'' anxiety that accompanies raising kids here.
But pluses like diversity, excitement, culture, and the thrill of outdoor movies, music and river-art waterfalls, all within easy commuting distance, become meaningless for parents who do not believe their children can obtain a first-rate education in the New York City public school system. That's why word-of-mouth makes the best schools instantly popular, and why landlords hold enormous power in neighborhoods graced with good schools.
New York City living is a series of trade-offs. You give up on the idea of a backyard in favor of a public park or playground, convince your children that all siblings share their bedrooms (or sleep in rooms that resemble monastery cells), forgo owning a car or move it constantly -- and pay those pesky parking tickets when you forget. It's all a lot easier to take if you feel good about the schools.
All of this became even more sharply apparent to me recently when a West Coast colleague without New York City know-how or connections who was moving here in a big hurry wanted help and advice. She wanted the basics, which can feel impossible: a decent apartment near a good neighborhood public school that would welcome her children as newcomers.
She figured she could accomplish this in one weekend.
I turned her onto to Insideschools.org and gave her a list of some of the most well known and loved schools near hew new job in lower Manhattan -- PS 150, PS 234 and PS 89. A quick look at listings made it clear that a two-bedroom in these areas would cost at least $5,600, so lower Manhattan was quickly ruled out.
Then it was on to Brooklyn, where principals and parent coordinators were warm and welcoming -- and some landlords asked for as many as five months' rent as security, in advance. Prices were still killer -- a fifth-floor walk-up "bargain'' was nearly $3,000 a month. The second 'bedroom' owed its existence to a door on a walk-in closet.
The apartment could not be instantly discounted, though, as it had the huge advantage of being zoned for PS 321, long established as one of the city's best.
Such high prices forced my colleague toward a wider search and scrutiny of other, less-commuting-convenient neighborhoods, with schools that were less well known, but equally loved by hard-working parents and staff.
For a renter in a hurry, it's turning out to be a lot more homework. She's coming back, but convinced she'll have to look at the high cost of renting near the schools she wants as "tuition.''
That's life in New York City.