Top public schools: midsize U.S. cities

From Southwest suburbs to Southern tech towns, these top 10 cities offer families the best public schools for places with populations between 100,000 and 300,000.

By GreatSchools Staff

Naperville, Ill.

Naperville, Ill.

Education quality score: 87.87
Median home price: $375,860
Population: 142,479

With a carillon and bell tower, numerous parks, and a gorgeous four-mile river walk, Naperville has plenty to offer families looking for small-city charm. This suburb has a high concentration of upper-middle-class professionals, some working at local corporations and many commuting (Chicago is less than an hour away via the Metra rail).

More important, Naperville is known for its outstanding school system, with two high schools — Naperville Central High School and Naperville North High School — within city limits. In addition to strong academics, they offer a wide range of activities: Naperville North has a stellar drama department, a math team, and competitive sports, while Naperville Central offers everything from an anime club to athletics — and is the only U.S. high school with an Egyptian mummy. Also worth noting: The city's sleek public library has been rated best in the country by the American Library Association.

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Irvine, Calif.

Irvine, Calif.

Education quality score: 85.23
Median home price: $643,830
Population: 201,160

As cities go, Irvine is a special case. It emerged during the 1960s, when the Irvine Company enlisted architect William Pereira to plan a community around a new University of California campus. Each neighborhood, or village, was designed around an architectural theme, among them Spanish Mission, Tuscan, and Atlantic Coast. Today Irvine is an urban area with a strong, diverse economy, and its top employers include UC Irvine and a number of high-tech companies.

Irvine's school district is excellent for a variety of reasons: Anchored by a top university, the region is well educated and has generally high income levels and a low crime rate. Would-be researchers will be happy to know that UC Irvine's libraries are open to the public. One caveat: If Irvine sounds too good to be true, it should be noted that it has the highest median rent in the country.

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Cary, N.C.

Education quality score: 84.63
Median home price: $269,430
Population: 121,796

Cary is a small suburb of Raleigh known for its public education. A unique feature of Cary's schools — and arguably what makes them good — is their successful integration policy. Wake County busses students to maintain economic diversity, working to limit the number of students eligible for free or reduced-cost school lunches to a maximum of 40% per school. And according to U.S. News & World Report, 63.8% of Wake County's low-income students passed state high school exit exams, significantly more than in surrounding counties.

But the future of this stellar district is in doubt. An election last fall changed the makeup of the school board, and the new board recently voted to end the diversity policy. In February veteran superintendent Del Burns resigned in protest of the anticipated change. "I hold certain values and convictions very, very highly," he said in an interview with a local TV station. "The proposed policies of the board are not in alignment with my goals and my vision."

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Bellevue, Wash.

Education quality score: 83.42
Median home price: $461,970
Population: 121,347

A "boomburb" of Seattle, Bellevue is home to a thriving school system and plentiful opportunities for outdoor recreation. With Lake Washington to the west, Lake Sammamish to the east, and mountain ranges surrounding it, Bellevue was named for its beautiful views. It also has amenities unusual for a city of its size, like the Bellevue Arts Museum, which focuses on promoting Pacific Northwest arts and crafts. Demographics skew white (74%) and Asian (17%), with a significant African American minority (3%).

There is considerable school choice in Bellevue, with a handful of elementary, middle, and alternative schools and four high schools. Even better, three of the high schools are ranked by the prestigious U.S. News & World Report Best High Schools survey: Bellevue High School (78/100), the International School (10/100), and Newport High School (72/100). For younger students seeking alternative choices, Bellevue has a Waldorf school (Three Cedars School) and at least seven Montessori schools.

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Ann Arbor, Mich.

Ann Arbor, Mich.

Education quality score: 81.52
Median home price: $207,370
Population: 115,092

Home to the highly regarded University of Michigan, Ann Arbor is a small city with a college town flavor. Because of its proximity to a major research university, the area — unlike the rest of the state — has a healthy economy anchored by high-tech, medical, and other professional jobs.

Ann Arbor has 21 elementary schools; five middle schools; and six high schools, three traditional (Pioneer High School, Huron High School, and Skyline High School) and three alternative (Community High School, Stone School, and Roberto Clemente Student Development Center). Older students looking for something less conventional can branch out and explore Community High, aka "Commie High," which has no sports, dress codes, valedictorians, or detention — but does have a rainbow-colored "anti-zebra" mascot.

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Gilbert, Ariz.

Education quality score: 80.50
Median home price: $259,630
Population: 207,550

A fast-growing suburb with a youthful population, Gilbert, in the southeast Phoenix metro area, has a diverse mix of professional jobs in health, the sciences, high tech, and renewable energy. Gilbert's vibe is primarily family-focused and conservative, and it's safe.

Gilbert Public Schools provides a handful of unique options like the Gilbert Classical Academy, a college prep school with an honors and tech-friendly curriculum (each student receives a laptop to use during the school year). According to the district’s website, 27 schools have won Arizona's highest "excelling" ranking, while 10 have been rated "highly performing." A few schools do fall under the purview of other districts — Chandler, Mesa, Queen Creek, and Higley.

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Scottsdale, Ariz.

Scottsdale, Ariz.

Education quality score: 79.56
Median home price: $370,040
Population: 235,677

Nestled in the Salt River Valley, this Phoenix burb is a tourist hot spot. Scottsdale is known for its upscale shopping districts, spas, nightlife, and restaurants and countless golf courses. It also provides the desert backdrop for Taliesin West, the distinctive headquarters of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.

Like Gilbert's, Scottsdale's school system is considered one of the best in Arizona, with the district's website noting that 22 schools are rated "excelling." The Scottsdale Unified School District has 16 elementary schools, three K-8 schools, five high schools (Arcadia, Chaparral, Coronado, Desert Mountain, and Saguaro), and one alternative school (Sierra Vista Academy).

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Overland Park, Kan.

Education quality score: 79.48
Median home price: $215,320
Population: 169,403

Overland Park is the second-largest city in Kansas, and because of the affordable housing, quiet neighborhoods, and strong schools, BusinessWeek called it one the best places to raise kids. Its largest employer is Sprint Nextel, which has its headquarters there. Of late, Overland Park has gained new fame as the setting for screenwriter Diablo Cody's United States of Tara, a critically acclaimed Showtime series about a housewife with multiple personality disorder.

Overland Park’s schools fall into three school districts — the Shawnee Mission School District, the Blue Valley School District, and the Olathe School District — and offer a mix of top academics and extracurriculars.

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Pembroke Pines, Fla.

Education quality score: 78.52
Median home price: $251,380
Population: 146,828

Located near the beach town of Hollywood, Fla., Pembroke Pines is served by the Broward County Public Schools, the sixth-largest school system in the country. The city of Pembroke Pines also operates a handful of charter schools — a major plus being class sizes limited to 25 students. The charter schools require each family to commit to 30 hours of volunteer service per year. (In 2007 Pembroke Pines Charter High School was named National Charter School of the Year.) Newsweek deemed another Pembroke school, Charles W. Flanagan High School, one of the nation's top 1,000 schools.

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Plano, Texas

Plano, Texas

Education quality score: 76.68
Median home price: $201,440
Population: 260,796

Since Plano is the wealthiest place in the United States with a population of more than 250,000, its schools had better be good — and they are. But more than socioeconomics are at play. The Plano Independent School District has a unique way of running its schools, dividing the upper grades between high schools (grades 9-10) and senior high schools (grades 11-12). All three of the senior high schools (Plano East, Plano Senior, and Plano West) offer an array of Advanced Placement classes and extracurricular activities.

On the other hand, parents should be aware that Plano became notorious for teen suicides in the 1980s and an epidemic of heroin deaths in the '90s. While some suggest the media may have blown these events out of proportion, it's hard to discount the stories entirely. Say "no more," Plano!

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