When Jeanne Shapiro received two letters on Saturday from Public School 290 on the Upper East Side, where she always assumed she would send her twin daughters, her husband cracked a joke about the way thin envelopes from college admissions offices tended to bear bad news. Mrs. Shapiro just laughed; P.S. 290 was a block and a half from the family's apartment, she figured, and every New Yorker knows that an address in a good school zone is tantamount to a guaranteed kindergarten seat.
But the letters said the 5-year-olds had been placed on a waiting list for the school, on East 82nd Street.
"We were so flabbergasted we missed our stop on our elevator," Mrs. Shapiro said. "We didn't even push the button because we didn't even believe what we were reading."
The Shapiro twins were among about three dozen children put on a waiting list at P.S. 290 in what parents and public officials in some of New York's priciest precincts fear will become the first season in which Manhattan children will be turned away from their neighborhood schools. The combination of overcrowded classrooms in neighborhoods newly inundated with young children, a recession that is causing some families to rethink expensive private schools, and a new citywide admissions process that requires people to sign up for kindergarten earlier has spread fear of lotteries and rejections across playgrounds and online discussion groups.
"In the past there was anxiety on the part of parents who had a zoned school they considered not desirable," said Robin Aronow, who runs a school admissions consulting firm, School Search NYC. "Now that anxiety has stretched its way to even the families who have a desirable option, about whether that option will be available."
Andrew Jacob, a spokesman for the Department of Education, warned that the enrollment picture could change by September. Because the new process required people to sign up for their local schools earlier than in previous years, many who registered for zoned schools may choose to send their children to gifted-and-talented programs -- which will not announce their placements until June -- or to private schools.
"It's far too soon to speculate about which schools will actually be capped in September," he said. "The number of students who are interested in attending a school in the spring is often very different from the number who actually still want to attend the school in the fall."
Mr. Jacob said families should wait until September, when schools that are oversubscribed make arrangements with the Department of Education to handle the overflow. In the past, he noted, city schools outside Manhattan have capped enrollments, though it has not happened before in Manhattan neighborhoods that are sought after for their schools. This year, 34 schools outside Manhattan have done so.
"The bottom line is schools have to accommodate all of their zoned students unless they work out a capping plan with us, and that happens in September," he said. "Even if they get to the point in September where some schools still have more zoned students that want to attend than we have seats, we work with them to see if there is a way to accommodate more students."
But parents and public officials say that it is not enough to hope that slots free up. On the Upper East Side, City Councilwoman Jessica S. Lappin said her office had been inundated with calls from people who received letters from P.S. 290 saying their children were not being offered one of its 125 kindergarten seats "at this time."
"We sincerely hope that we will be able to accommodate all zoned families seeking a seat at P.S. 290 in the 2009-2010 school year," wrote the school's principal, Sharon Hill, without offering parents guidance on how to proceed.
Ms. Lappin faulted the mayor and the schools chancellor, not individual principals, for the situation.
"How do you send letters to families telling them that their kids are not going to their zoned school and have no plan in place for them?" she said in an interview. "That's outrageous.
"The whole foundation of this system," she added, "is that you're supposed to, at a local level, be able to send your kid to a school in the neighborhood."
Other schools may also create waiting lists. At P.S. 87 on the Upper West Side, Mr. Jacob said, 200 children zoned for the school applied for 175 seats. P.S. 59, on East 63rd Street, had 149 applications for 100 seats and P.S. 6 had 163 applicants for 150 seats. While some of the current crunch may be eased by people choosing private schools, public schools could also find themselves having to make room for private school refugees. Dr. Aronow, the consultant, said that just last week, she met with three new clients who were considering pulling their children out of private school for financial reasons.
Late last spring, some parents whose children were zoned for P.S. 234, in TriBeCa, and P.S. 89, in Battery Park City, were placed on waiting lists, although the schools ended up admitting all of them. This year, two new schools are opening in Lower Manhattan to help ease the crowding.
But the Department of Education did not rezone the neighborhoods to delineate who should attend the existing schools and who should go to the new ones, instead having P.S. 234 and P.S. 89 hold lotteries.
Faith Paris Aarons, who lives opposite P.S. 234, said she was "completely outraged" to learn that her son had not been admitted.
"If I had known this, I don't know if I would have continued to stay here in Manhattan," she said.