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The best cities to live and learn 2011

Looking for a great school? You might be surprised where you'll find it.

By Carol Lloyd

"Zip code equals destiny."

In an era when almost everything about American education is a matter of intense debate, it's rare to find a truism which so few people dispute. But is the equation between big money and good schools really so inviolable? This year as we surveyed our data about American cities with the most consistently high-performing schools, we noticed some intriguing — and sometimes surprising — results.

Educational sweet spot

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the very best cities for public schooling are not those whose streets are rolling with Rolls. The winning cities in our top 10 list don't have the highest median home prices: not those in the $800,000-plus, $600,000-plus, nor even $400,000-plus ranges. The real shocker? The highest number of top-scoring cities for public schooling were in fact found on our $200,000-$399,999 list: Falmouth, ME (ranked 1# nationwide), Barrington, RI (#4) and Bedford, NH (#5).

Anomalies of greatness? Hardly. In fact, the $100,000-$199,999 list had some serious contenders, too. Pella, IA (median home price: $148,200) ranked 3rd nationwide; St. John's, FL ($181,700) ranked 8th.

It’s not that many well-heeled areas don’t have great schools. Mercer Island, WA (#2 nationwide, median home price of $708,740) and Manhattan Beach, CA (#7, median home price $1,278,980) are just two examples of towns where superlative learning and affluence go hand in hand. Yet as the lackluster performance of many upscale towns across the country proves, deep parental pockets are no assurance of an area’s exceptional public schools.

So where is the educational sweet spot? Wherever the impassioned middle class puts down roots. These are the towns, suburbs and cities across America where families consistently, and somewhat forcefully, support their local schools — come budget crisis or political battle. This kind of education-loving populace tends to multiply, attracting like-minded families to move there, too.

Of course, many of this year's top-ranking cities seem affordable when compared to say, New York City, but they are prosperous relative to their regions. For instance, though Barrington, RI has a median home price of $269,010 (compared to humble Queens, NY, at $450,249), it's an affluent suburb of Providence, attracting academics and professionals who work in the city. In a similar fashion, cities like Bedford, NH,or Falmouth, ME,tend to attract a quorum of college-educated parents — a strong predictor for the success of any school district.

What, then, can we learn from these top education towns? For starters, it’s worth taking note of what we didn't find in our school-district success stories: bleeding-edge, high-tech solutions, billionaire sugar daddies, or teachers whose exertions resemble that of ultra-marathoners. Rather, the educational model followed by our top-rated districts is based on educational practices that aren't so easy to implement, day after day, year after year.

is the executive editor of GreatSchools and mother to two raucous daughters, ages 9 and 13.

Comments from readers

"No doubt, teachers make a big difference but so does a neighborhood. That has a lot of influence on the children."
"I agree! PLC is the best professional development and method to really look at student work to figure out teaching implications. These posts below are not about the author's message and focused on unimportant details! I think the main idea is about teacher collaboration and focusing on bringing up thoughtful engaged thinkers! Amen!"
"No offense to the authors, but these are not cities. These are all small towns, and suburbs! Nothing unexpected here."
"I would love to see an article on the best cities that serve the twice exceptional child - gifted with learning disabilities. Where can one go to find experienced and caring schools that focus on the whole child, challenges and gifts?"
"..the state capital of Manchester. And what state might that be? Surely, not New Hampshire."
"Concord is the capital city of New Hampshire, not Manchester. Editor's note: Thank you, Manchester Student, for pointing out this error. We have fixed this mistake. Many thanks!"