New York City public school buildings have been cast in Romanesque Revival, Collegiate Gothic, Art Deco, Modern, and Post-Modern idioms. They are sited across the five boroughs in residential neighborhoods, along the waterfront, among dense high rises, next to parks, and on commercial strips and boulevards.

The oldest school building is the 1787 Federal wood-frame Erasmus Hall Academy in the courtyard of Erasmus Hall Educational Campus. The oldest school building still in use, P.S. 34 (completed 1867), was constructed just after the Civil War in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Public education, malleable and shifting under changing societal expectations over the past two centuries, has required architects to continually reinvent the public school. The grammar school, serving grades one to eight, eventually incorporated a dedicated kindergarten, numbering about five hundred such classrooms by 1905.

In response to the waves of immigrants flooding into the city in the 1890s and 1910s, schools became grand social work agencies, charged with a secondary task of Americanizing children and parents. With the passage of the School Reform Law in 1896, the City embarked on the construction of high schools in each borough.

The junior high emerged as a building type in 1929. Vocational high schools came into vogue in the 1930s; specialized schools like the New York School for Printing and Aviation Trades High School opened their doors in the decades that followed, creating clear educational pathways to industry.

The early childhood center for pre-kindergarten through third grade became a recognizable school building type after World War II. In recent years the trend has been toward the stand-alone small school or the school campus, an association of smaller schools sharing a single building or clustered together in a school precinct.

The system has gone full circle, with the new PS/IS (primary school/intermediate school) combination echoing the old grammar school model serving children in Pre-K through grade eight.