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Best cities to live and learn 2010

How do they do it? The surprising secrets behind the best education towns in the nation.

Photo credit: Sandfoot Photography

By GreatSchools Staff

An affordable home, a diverse community, and outstanding public schools. Is it too much for a family to ask? Maybe not. But that didn’t make it easy for Kelly and Sam Utt-Grubb to find their dream town.

After moving to five cities, the family finally settled in Cary, N.C., where they struck educational gold. The city’s school district ranks third in GreatSchools' top 10 midsize cities.

“I couldn’t ask for any more,” says Kelly Utt-Grubb, 33. “And I’m a picky customer.”

The magic formula

Every year millions of U.S. parents consider pulling up stakes to make a city and school upgrade. But not all families can follow in the Utt-Grubbs’ footsteps, moving from city to city in search of educational excellence and affordable living.

So what’s the magic formula that makes certain cities end up with stellar schools while others struggle to meet the most basic standards? Great teachers are the ubiquitous linchpin of any first-rate school system, as in Bainbridge, Wash., where three-fourths of them have master’s degrees.

How do some school districts manage to recruit and retain, motivate, and develop great teachers so the whole system shines? And how do others, like the school system in Sudbury, Mass., offer students an enriching environment of artistic, athletic, and musical extracurriculars? Our research of the country’s top districts uncovered some fascinating and, at times, downright surprising answers.

Small is beautiful — and effective

Small classrooms, particularly in the lower grades, seem to be crucial in helping kids thrive. Many of our top districts sustain remarkably low student-teacher ratios, like in Allison Park, Pa. (10.9 to 1), and Honolulu (14 to 1). What’s more, small cities with small districts tend to win out over larger ones — perhaps because they are easier to manage and hold accountable.

Never stop innovating

Some of our ranking school districts have received so many awards, they could easily rest on their laurels. Instead, they exhibit a passion for innovation, pushing teachers and students to excel beyond their comfort zone. Whether maintaining a commitment to cutting-edge technology, like in Franklin Lakes, N.J., or offering innovative programs, like Issaquah Middle School in Sammamish, Wash. (which teamed up with MIT to study garbage flow in cities), these districts approach education not as a static system but as evolving knowledge.

Comments from readers

"I agree with this article. Mostly because, I have moved around a lot and I have went to bigger schools. In smaller schools, where the teacher student ratio is like 15-20 to 1 it helps the teacher stay focused and anwnser any questions to the problems related to the course work or other situations secenrios. I know that I like going to school in Arkansas a lot more than I like going to school in Henderson. Everything is big and cramped out here. The teacher student ratio is like 40-30 to 1 and everyone has an opinion out here, so that makes it really complicated for a teacher to see what problems the individual is having in the course work. I may have graduated from Basic but part of me wishes that I would have graduated from Oak Grove. When I was going there I had a g.p.a. of about 3.333 and I was ranked 13 out of the sophmores that attended the high school. I know this might sound crazy but I miss the school and I hope that I learn how to drive in time to see the school on! e last time before they knock it down or whatever they are going to do. I know I did a lot of growing up at that school more than I did at basic. "
"My son is in 7th grade and I'm considering home schooling for high school. I'm in the research stage and looking for feedback from parents who are presently home schooling their high school students."
"Unfortunately in some school districts, as in the case of my son when he was in 5th grade a few years ago, a class of 14 children meant more time for the teacher to play on facebook and yell at the kids. In a perfect world a small class SHOULD be a great learning experience for our children, but not in all cases."
"The Magic Formula? No it's not teachers, administrators, innovation... It's parents! Isn't it obvious? This is nothing but false advertising"
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