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

From Boston burbs to Midwestern towns, these top 10 cities offer families the best public schools for places with populations between 10,000 and 100,000.

By GreatSchools Staff

Belmont, Mass.

Belmont, Ma.

Education quality score: 98.01
Median home price: $694,300
Population: 23,216

This bucolic Boston suburb, bordered by upscale towns like brainy Cambridge and beatific Arlington, has a surplus of stately manses (thus its moniker, “the town of homes”), verdant open spaces, and stellar schools offering a bounty of academic bells and whistles.

Of the schools — four elementary, one middle, and one high — Belmont High is the district’s all-star, winning the 2009 gold medal from U.S. News & World Report, which also named it the country’s 100th-best non-private high school and Massachusetts’s second best. Belmont High offers a stunning 16 Advanced Placement courses, has outstanding athletic departments, and boasts a nationally recognized music program, rated among the top 100 for public schools. High expectations for excellence begin early. From elementary school on, students receive stellar test scores and high marks. The district’s secret? Being an affluent town hardly hurts. But Belmont has a long-standing tradition of community service: Parents and town organizations contribute significant money and time to enhance the schools; in turn, kindergarten through 12th-grade students are expected to participate regularly in community service, from working in food banks to hosting relief fundraisers.

Learn more about schools in Belmont, MA.

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Acton, Mass.

Acton, Mass.

Education quality score: 97.10
Median home price: $520,570
Population: 20,753

This little town's got history with a big H. The home of Isaac Davis, the bold militiaman who headed up the first attack on the British during the Revolutionary War, Acton enjoys its fair share of downtown New England picturesque. But the leafy Boston burb is no stranger to nature either — its parks include the Acton Arboretum, with 64 acres of gardens, orchards, and woods.

Acton's schools are highly regarded, and last year Acton Boxborough Regional High was recognized as a Blue Ribbon school. The district uses open enrollment to assign students to schools. Parents rank their school preferences, then enter a lottery that determines their ultimate placement. Lottery systems are used in many districts nationwide to ensure diversity and give all parents a chance to get their children into high-performing schools. But in Acton no matter where kids end up, every school has a stellar record and unique core philosophy. At the Merriam School, for example, teachers stress project-based learning and stay with the same group of students for two years at a time.

Kids seem to agree. One happy student at the Douglas School wrote in to GreatSchools with this glowing testimonial: "I'm a kid and I think Douglas is awesome! At my old school I didn't like to learn. Here I'm getting 100s on my tests! Choose this school, you'll love it!"

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Weston, Mass.

Weston, Mass.

Education quality score: 96.80
Median home price: $1,021,510
Population: 11,698

Weston is a beautiful little town that looks like something straight out of Currier & Ives. With the highest per capita income in the state (in fact, it’s one of the 100 most affluent towns with a thousand or more households in the entire country), it’s also the wealthiest suburb of Boston.

What do you get for all those clams? Your children will receive powerful one-on-one attention in the primary and secondary schools of Weston Public Schools. All five of its schools — three elementary, one middle, and one high — keep class sizes small and are committed to innovative approaches like team teaching with volunteer/parental support, “house” systems at the middle school level, and a college-style high school chockfull of electives and Advanced Placement classes. It’s not surprising this small district (less than 2,500 students) enjoys both SAT and college-placement stats near the top of Massachusetts’s public schools. Boston Magazine rated the district as the best in the state, while Weston High School was recently ranked as the nation's 60th-best public high school by U.S. News & World Report.

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Westwood, Mass.

Westwood, Mass.

Education quality score: 96.68
Median home price: $644,960
Population: 14,010

Norman Rockwell would have felt right at home in this picturesque New England hamlet that retains an old-fashioned feel. No wonder Westwood attracts so many families who want a more relaxed small-town life yet can easily commute — via two commuter rail lines — to Boston, located 12 miles away. What’s more, the town maintains a strong commitment to education. There’s a top-notch school system, and last year the independent-run Westwood Educational Foundation gave nearly $78,000 in grants, funding everything from spelling bees to math contests.

The school district consists of five elementary schools, Edmund W. Thurston Middle School, and state-of-the-art Westwood High, which was recently rebuilt for a cool $45 million. Year after year, Westwood students score in the top percentiles on national reading and math tests, and an overwhelming majority of high school graduates continue to college. But it’s not all work, no play: There’s an abundance of recreational areas, nature preserves, playgrounds, and ball fields. The downside to all this upside: Westwood notably lacks in diversity, with a nearly 95% white population.

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Mason, Ohio

Mason, Ohio

Education quality score: 96.56
Median home price: $189,500
Population: 29,555

George Clooney is the native son of this fast-growing Cincinnati suburb, which ranked on CNN Money’s “Top Places to Live in the United States” in 2010. Residents enjoy small-town life with some state-of-the-art attractions — including the Lindner Family Tennis Center, two water parks, and Kings Island theme park (voted “best kids' area” in the United States for nine consecutive years by Amusement Today). A family town with 67.5% of its households containing married couples, Mason boasts a school district that earns a perfect score every year on its Ohio Report Card. Classrooms are new and up-to-date, with 4,600 computers in the district — one for every 2.6 students.

William Mason High School excels in multiple arenas. Although it spends $1,901 less per pupil, it is one of Ohio’s Academic Top Ten and a silver medalist on Newsweek’s list of the top public high schools nationwide. How does it do more with less? Enthusiastic student involvement may play a role. Students have reached state championships in numerous areas including the math team, debate team, girls’ basketball, and girls’ track team. The school newspaper and wind symphony are also among the state’s best. Graduating students have entered every Ivy League school and received athletic scholarships in a dozen sports. Contributing heavily to the success is a young, highly motivated faculty that includes two Ohio Social Studies Teachers of the Year.

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Winchester, Mass.

Winchester, Mass.

Education quality score: 96.14
Median home price: $718,950
Population: 21,362

A bedroom community populated primarily by well-educated, well-off professionals, this leafy, historic suburb is affluent with a capital A. There’s good reason families pay dearly to put down roots here: a top-performing school system, a wealth of recreational amenities, and a speedy eight-mile commute to Boston, where much of the white-collar population works. (Of note, however: Winchester prides itself on a large and thriving artistic community.)

From kindergartners through 12th-graders, the district’s public school students consistently test significantly higher than the national average — although some may not favor the intensive push to achieve top academic scores. Nor is there a paucity of grown-up high achievers: included in the plethora of academics who call Winchester home are former Harvard University president Edward Everett and current Boston University president Robert A. Brown. Academics aside, Winchester is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise: Aberjona River and Mystic Lake are among local favorites for swimming, sailing, and canoeing. There are two tony private clubs for tennis and golf, and in wintertime cross-country and — a short drive away — downhill skiing.

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Mercer Island, Wash.

Mercer Island, Wash.

Education quality score: 95.93
Median home price: $863,160
Population: 23,894

Situated in Lake Washington in the Seattle metro area, Mercer Island offers a stunning natural setting and a quick commute via floating bridge to the big caffeinated city. With acres of open parkland and abundant waterfront, the city boasts lots of family-friendly hot spots including a boat dock and fishing pier, a swimming beach, an amphitheater, tennis courts, and picnic facilities.

The school district has some of the highest performance scores in the state for primary and secondary students. Mercer Island High School produces national-level scholarship recipients and National Merit finalists virtually every year. At a time when public schools are struggling financially nationwide, how does Mercer Island pack its coffers? The key might very well be the $1 million a year the tiny district receives from the Mercer Island Schools Foundation, as well as the high income and visibility of its residents, including Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, Ford CEO Alan Mulally and financial analyst Colby Hanover (who rank among the richest people in the world), and a large contingent of Amazon and Microsoft execs.

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Fishers, Ind.

Fishers, Ind.

Education quality score: 95.89
Median home price: $183,800
Population: 66,080

Located 20 miles from Indianapolis, Fishers is a small town whose population has exploded sixfold in the past decade. BusinessWeek named Fishers the “most affordable suburb” in 2010, while Money magazine ranked it as the country’s “10th best place to live” in 2008. Amusements include 17 parks, a Renaissance Faire, and community theater with family-friendly shows. There’s a private pre-K-8 Islamic school, Eman, with an on-site mosque, Arabic language classes, and a strict dress code. But the primary lure attracting new residents are the 18 public schools in its district, Hamilton Southeastern Schools — every one of which has a GreatSchools perfect-10 score.

With more than 95% of its graduates aiming for a college education, Fishers High School is one of the country's top-performing high schools. In addition to high academic standards, it offers a character education program and small classes — a commendable goal when you’re the fastest-growing school district in Indiana. The high school also excels in extracurricular activities, with state-contending teams in Quiz Bowl, Spell Bowl, Destination ImagiNation, cross-country running, rugby, cheerleading and dance, and percussion ensemble.

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Sammamish, Wash.

Sammamish, Wa.

Education quality score: 95.88
Median home price: $569,140
Population: 35,242

If Sammamish has its quirks, they're quirks worth learning about. Near Seattle but secluded on the eastern shore of Lake Sammamish, this town allows residents to reap the rewards of both rural and suburban lifestyles. Though it lacks a post office, Sammamish boasts a symphony orchestra and great schools in two districts, Lake Washington County School District (northern Sammamish) and Issaquah School District (southern Sammamish).

Sammamish-area schools are bursting with innovative programs. Last November, for example, the Green Team at Issaquah Middle School joined with MIT to investigate how garbage moves through cities. Lake Washington also runs 11 incredibly popular "choice schools" like the 90-student Renaissance School of Art and Reasoning, which focuses on the visual and performing arts.

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Sudbury, Mass.

Sudbury, Mass.

Education quality score: 95.47
Median home price: $738,200
Population: 17,159

True, Sudbury is yet another wealthy, residential Boston suburb to make our list. But don’t be fooled — this is no ho-hum town. Since its inception hundreds of years ago, Sudbury has been distinguished by a distinctive character committed to certain core values.

For starters, the township has managed mightily to stave off overdevelopment and retain a strong rural flavor, with acres of woods and scenic winding roads. All the same, there’s a plethora of single-family large homes, including scores of stately, centuries-old colonials and more recently built mansions. As well, the population is known for its allegiance to education. A sizable portion of the high real estate taxes goes toward maintaining the excellent schools, most notably Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High. While the student body scores high on standardized tests, the administration resists trends to teach only to tests and maintains a diverse curriculum to promote creative, individual thinking.

Of particular note: The original Sudbury Valley School in neighboring Framingham (falling within the Sudbury district) is acclaimed for its groundbreaking, progressive approach to schooling and has spawned nearly 40 Sudbury schools worldwide.

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