Top public schools in 2010: large U.S. cities

From island living to East Coast urban, these top 10 cities offer families the best public schools for places with populations above 300,000.

By GreatSchools Staff

Raleigh, N.C.

Raleigh, N.C.

Education quality score: 65.88
Median home price: $202,480
Population: 375,806

“Choice” has been the theme of Raleigh’s school system for the past few years. Families can choose between a healthy magnet program, a variety of charter schools, and traditional approaches at more than 99 elementary schools, 30 middle schools, and 23 high schools. There are scheduling options as well, with about a third of the schools operating year-round. Part of the Wake County Public School System, with more than 130,000 students in 156 schools (the largest in the state), this racially and economically diverse system is also home to three high schools that offer the demanding, well-respected International Baccalaureate program. In fact, the entire district is focused on college prep; more than 90% of students plan to continue some form of higher education, with well more than half heading off to four-year colleges.

Overall, Raleigh has survived the economic recession and real estate crash and is already growing again. Many families point to the wide cultural diversity — museums, sports, extracurricular offerings and camps, options in education and worship, dining, and more — that make it a great place to live.

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Colorado Springs, CO

Colorado Springs, Colo.

Education quality score: 63.94
Median home price: $192,320
Population: 376,427

About an hour from Denver and second in size to the state capital, Colorado Springs has a number of school districts that cover various neighborhoods. District 11 is the largest, with more than 65 schools and a wide range of special programs including International Baccalaureate, CORE Knowledge, Advanced Placement, GATE, and a comprehensive career and technology one. The district also hosts the only public Montessori program in the area. And it seems to be working: More than 80% of its students go on to higher education.

Other districts include Academy District 20, also among the top rated in the state; Harrison District 2, one of the most diverse; Cheyenne Mountain School District 12, smaller but with almost 90% of students going on to college; and Falcon District 49, one of the fastest growing in the area. There are even more districts, each with its own unique community and each showing high achievement and a commitment to excellence

Colorado Springs is a “pretty awesome place to live” — so says Outside magazine, which rated it as one of the best cities in the country. Politically conservative (not surprising, given the huge Air Force presence), it has a brand-new performing arts center, an amazing amount of outdoor activities, and — let’s face it — some of the nicest weather in the world. And of course there’s always Pike’s Peak!

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Mesa, Ariz.

Education quality score: 63.92
Median home price: $174,810
Population: 452,933

Talk about achievement: Students in Mesa Public Schools topped the 2009 state average in every subject area and grade level, and all six of its high schools were honored in the 2009 Best High Schools survey by U.S. News & World Report. The district and individual schools have also been recognized by America's Promise Alliance, Standard and Poor's, and National Blue Ribbon Schools for excellence in everything from academics and sports to the creative and performing arts to career and technical programs. Mesa's 87 schools include preschool programs, academies for biotech and advanced studies, International Baccalaureate programs, and Advanced Placement classes, as well as adult ed and parent university.

Just 20 miles from Phoenix, Mesa is an affluent, family-oriented community that offers access to the big city and great outdoor experiences. And the Phoenix-Mesa metro area is one of the few in the country that hosts all four major sports: the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Phoenix Suns, the Coyotes, and the Cardinals. Go team (whichever one you like)!

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Honolulu

Honolulu

Education quality score: 62.39
Median home price: $632,750
Population: 375,571

How many school districts does Hawaii have? One, and Honolulu’s part of it. That makes Hawaii Public Schools the 10th-largest district in the country, with more than 175,000 students (about a third of them attend the 78 schools in Honolulu’s sector). The schools tend to be small — the average high school population is less than 1,000, middle schools are less than half that size, and elementary schools even smaller — and the teacher-student ratio’s pleasantly low at 14 to 1. That means plenty of personal attention to keep students from getting distracted by the sun, waves, and temptations of island life. The district is struggling with the economic downturn and underfunding, but it also sports some Blue Ribbon elementary schools and one of the nation’s top-performing high schools.

And, dude, it’s Honolulu, one of the most beautiful places on Earth — with one of the highest costs of living. If you’re lucky enough to have a job that lets you raise a family here, it’s good to know that the school district is dedicated to excellence and individual accomplishment, and not just cruising through your child’s education.

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Virginia Beach, VA

Virginia Beach, Va.

Education quality score: 59.62
Median home price: $239,890
Population: 434,743

With rising SAT scores, AP tests above the national average, state awards for excellence for most of its schools, and more than 84% of its students planning higher education, Virginia Beach City Public Schools is focused on high performance. Its 56 elementary schools, 14 middle schools, and 11 high schools serve more than 70,000 students, and the district has also created a Renaissance Academy, an Advanced Technology Center, and a Technical and Career Education Center. What’s more, 6 of those 11 high schools were ranked among the top 6% of high schools in Newsweek’s annual report of the best U.S. schools. Virginia Beach has a graduation rate of almost 83%, above the state’s average. Clearly a district on the move!

Not only does it have a solid school system and a low crime rate, but it would be hard to find a prettier place: There are more than 35 miles of beautiful beaches along the Atlantic and Chesapeake Bay. The summers are warm, the winters are mild, and there are museums, an aquarium, and a huge national wildlife refuge. All in all, a great place to live and learn.

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Portland, Ore.

Portland, Ore.

Education quality score: 56.58
Median home price: $257,300
Population: 550,396

Portland’s proud of its innovative public school district made up of 85 schools, including seven charters, 18 community-based alternative programs, and 16 special services programs — exactly what you’d expect from a progressive city with a lot to offer families. Yes, you’ll find plenty of rain (it’s the Pacific Northwest!), but you’ll also find major companies like Nike and Columbia Sportswear, an amazing arts and music scene, incredible food and nightlife, and one of the best public transit systems west of the Rockies.

The economic downturn and high unemployment are major challenges for Portland parents, but they still believe it’s a wonderful place to raise a family — just ask them.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.

Pittsburgh

Education quality score: 56.56
Median home price: $79,380
Population: 311,218

Pittsburgh Public Schools is on the move. A few years ago, the district — the second-largest in the state, with 26,000 students in 66 schools — made a commitment to improve its faltering performance, and the steady improvements in rankings and test scores are proof that its efforts are taking hold. AYP scores are rising every year and even exceeding expectations, while student performance at all levels continues to improve. And Pittsburgh — called one of the most livable U.S. cities by everyone from The Economist to the Places Rated Almanac — has a low cost of living and low crime stats. Besides, it’s the home of the first Big Mac and the banana split. What family could ask for more?

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San Francisco

San Francisco

Education quality score: 56.37
Median home price: $673,610
Population: 764,976

Great news! The San Francisco Unified School District is among the top-performing large urban districts in the state and the nation. Half the SFUSD schools rank above the state average and in the top 40% of schools nationwide, with four of its high school named by Newsweek as among the country’s best. That has to be comforting for parents who already enjoy the enormous benefits of living in one of the world’s great cities.

Yes, it’s facing high unemployment and still recovering from the busted tech bubble, but the San Francisco Bay Area boasts a huge variety of cultural landmarks, academic institutions, and research centers. And it’s the home of the constantly expanding computer and biotech industries. Few other places in the United States offer such advantages to families.

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Tampa, Fla.

Tampa, Fla.

Education quality score: 55.88
Median home price: $151,340
Population: 336,823

Tampa’s educational profile is strong and getting stronger, earning an “A” from the state of Florida and offering families more than 243 schools and 60 other educational options, including charter and magnet schools and early childhood learning centers. Meanwhile, the living is easy: Tampa is one of the great underrated cities, with world-class dining, shopping, sports, live performances, museums, galleries, and more. A multicultural adventure for the entire family.

The city's economic woes echo the nation's, particularly in housing, but recovery is coming a little more quickly to the area than elsewhere. Unemployment remains the biggest challenge; improvements there may trail the national recovery curve.

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San Jose, Calif.

San Jose, Calif.

Education quality score: 55.41
Median home price: $544,640
Population: 939,899

“Diversity” is the key word for San Jose Unified, an urban school district with a wide range of performance in its 40 schools, many of them offering APIs close to 800. Among its many outstanding schools: Leland High, with its nationally recognized speech and debate team, was recently named a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. With per-student spending well above the state and national averages, the district is continuing its multi-year commitment to excellence in education for all students, regardless of their background — a fitting goal for the capital of Silicon Valley, one of the country’s best-known, safest, and most expensive communities.

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