Top 10 cities to live and learn 2011

From an island retreat to mid-western hamlet, our top 10 cities may not resemble one another at first glance. But each offers residents a priceless amenity: extraordinary public schools.

By GreatSchools Staff

Falmouth, ME

Education quality score: 100.00
Median home value: $351,550
Population: 10,669

This quintessential New England coastal town may seem eerily familiar. Schooners aplenty and breathtaking beaches (and bracingly cold water) attract the eye – but your sense of déjà vu is courtesy of Stephen King, who set more than a few scenes in this quiet hamlet near his hometown of Portland. Horror, however, is not this town’s biggest claim to fame. Falmouth's got serious education chops, consistently outperforming state and national averages in achievement and earning the only perfect score on the educational quality index. The low student-teacher ratio (12:1), a generous dollars-per-pupil spend of $10,075, and a highly-educated staff (more than 60 percent of teachers have at least a master’s degree), add up to an all-star student body.

Last year, 90 percent of the high school’s graduates went to four-year colleges, including Ivy League and other highly selective schools. Recently visited by an accreditation committee, Falmouth High School earned kudos for its mission and academic results. The high school “takes the business of preparing students academically, emotionally, and socially very seriously,” the committee reported. To wit, every student must complete 30 hours of community service and present a senior discovery portfolio including student work, a copy of a college application, a resume, and copy of a current CPR card to graduate.

Learn more about schools in Falmouth, ME.

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Mercer Island, WA

Educational quality score: 99.12
Median home value: $708,740
Population: 24,351


"Play hard, work hard" seems to be the motto on this 10-square mile speck floating in Lake Washington near Seattle. Ka-Boom!, a nonprofit organization that supports and fosters play, awarded Mercer Island "Playful City USA" for three straight years, praising its 50 miles of trails and 400 acres of parks and open space. Mercer Island High School (MIHS) has one of the top lacrosse teams in the nation, plus fearsome squads in tennis, swimming, water polo, and drill team. The marching band performed in London's 2011 New Year's Parade, and 25 percent of MIHS's students are making noise in the music program.

Studying still gets done though, with impressive results. MIHS is a Blue Ribbon School where 95 percent graduate, and the SAT average is an eye-popping 635 Math, 613 Verbal. At Islander Middle School, the extra-curriculars include chess, knitting, gaming, and robotics, and all three elementary schools have received special recognition by the state. Even "reluctant learners" and "high risk" youth get the best here - the Crest Learning Center offers an 11-months per year program, with integrated courses and outdoor activities like rock-climbing, horticulture, and ultimate Frisbee.

Learn more about schools in Mercer Island, WA.

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Pella, IA

Education quality score: 98.25
Median home value: $148.200
Population: 10,475

Hello Holland! Back in 1847, 800 Dutch immigrants established this town, bringing with them a distinctly Netherlandish flair that has been joyously maintained. A canal winds through Molengracht Plaza, a flotilla of tulips burst into bloom during the May Tulip Festival, the Historical Village features a drawbridge and waterwheel, their beloved Tulip Time Festival  showcases Dutch costumes and Dutch dancing (fun fact: the town just made the Guinness Book of World Records for the most people – 2605! — dancing in wooden clogs at one time); and the 124-foot tall Vermeer Windmill (from the 1850's) still grinds wheat into flour that's sold to Pella's bakeries and restaurants.

Students here also have their nose to the grindstone. The school district — three elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school — is rated #5 academically by the Iowa IP Index. Pella High  in the highly-competitive Midwest is a Blue Ribbon school with college credit classes, an articulate speech team, a harmonious music program, a yearly mathematics competition, and solid sports contenders in football, basketball, swimming, and especially cross-county. The "Runnin' Dutch" are ranked in the state's Top Six teams. Pella Christian School (PreK-8) has also been named a "School of Excellence" by the U.S. Department of Education.

Learn more about schools in Pella, IA.

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Barrington, RI

Education quality score: 97.96
Median home value: $296,010
Population: 16,284

Just 20 minutes from the state’s capital, no point in this much-lauded seaside town is more than two miles from salt water. Green and bucolic like the village in Somerset, England it was named for, modern-day Barrington’s bustling streets are lined with historic architecture.

The town is blessed with a robust education foundation that has awarded more than $790,000 in grants to the schools for new laptops, innovative broadcast technology, and unique programs like a four-week introduction to tai chi to help students manage stress while increasing mobility. The district is also working toward a professional learning community (PLC) model, which promotes a culture focused on education and collaboration between teachers. The 2010 NECAP report ranked the high school among the state’s top five in reading, writing, and math, and students at Barrington High School tend to ace the SATs, scoring well above state averages.

Learn more about schools in Barrington, RI.

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Bedford, NH

Education quality score: 97.96
Median home value: $293,730
Population: 21,504

As Bedford has expanded to be considered commutable to Boston, this small town’s population has exploded from about 2,000 in the 1950s to more than 21,000 today. But don’t fret that it’s just a rest stop for disengaged commuters. Civic pride is high; Segway inventor Dean Kamen’s marvelous house is here; and Bedford School District is one of the town’s biggest employers.

Already a high-performing district (last year, 91 percent of students tested proficient or higher in reading; 86 percent tested at similar levels in math), Bedford recently got a major educational boost: its very own public high school. In 2010, the first senior class graduated from brand-new Bedford High School. For such a young school, the Bulldogs are already pulling down impressive numbers. In the 2009-2010 school year, they boasted 11 commended scholars, one presidential scholar, and two students recognized under the National Hispanic Recognition program of PSAT/NMSQT. In addition, Bedford High recently launched a partnership with a sister school in Denmark and began offering exchange opportunities to its students.

Learn more about schools in Bedford, NH.

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Moraga, CA

Educational quality score: 97.69
Median home value: 722,010
Population: 16,465

This pastoral suburb in the East Bay hills has fields and woodlands with cows, deer, squirrels, foxes, coyote, bobcats, quail, and wild turkeys that occasionally strut on the downtown sidewalks. There's nothing "fowl" about the schools however. The district's API score of 945 placed them in the top 2 percent statewide, with Campolindo High School (CHS) ranking #86 nationally in US News & World Report. CHS offers video production and digital photography classes, as well as great sports opportunities. The 2010 girls volleyball team was tops in the Golden State, and Olympic star Matt Biondi grew his fins on the school's buoyant swim team.

The middle school, Joaquin Moraga Intermediate School, also offers unusual extracurriculars, like golf, badminton, journalism club, writing contests, and spelling and geography bees. All this, in a Northern California setting that enables you to hike, bike, or run your dog off leash. Moraga even has a liberal arts ivory tower: St. Mary's College with 3,840 students.

Learn more about schools in Moraga, CA.

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Manhattan Beach, CA

Education quality score: 97.69
Median home value: $1,278,980
Population: 37,745

Only 19 miles southwest of Los Angeles lies the scenic and sun-soaked strands of Manhattan Beach, a city with so much sand it once sold thousands of tons to build up the beaches of Waikiki in Honolulu. Manhattan Beach also used to be a summer retreat for L.A. dwellers. Today, those tiny surfside cottages are some of the most expensive beachfront estates in the U.S.

Students here don't spend all their time surfing, however. High teaching standards propelled Manhattan Beach Unified School District from fifth to third place in California's Academic Performance Index rankings in 2010. All five elementary schools ranked in the top 10 percent of schools statewide. But two schools, Grand View Elementary School and Pacific Elementary School, stood out, landing top honors as Distinguished Elementary Schools. Manhattan Beach Middle School landed on the Distinguished Middle and High School list in 2009.

Learn more about schools in Manhattan Beach, CA.

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St. John's, FL

Education quality score: 95.98
Median home value: $181,700
Population: 18,063

Get "teed off" easily? Not if you're in St. John's, a laid-back golfer's heaven and Jacksonsville suburb that's been ranked #1 in Florida for "Health Factors." Plus, this palm tree paradise is brimming over with sunshine, white-sand beaches, spectacular homes, and public school achievement. Although the neighborhoods have dreamy names — Fruit Cove, Julington Creek Plantation, Vilano Beach, Switzerland — students here aren't sleeping instead of going to school. Recent attendance was an astounding 95.3 percent.

Bartram Trail High School offers an advanced scholars program, plus Air Force ROTC, symphonic bands, and a wide-ranging curriculum that includes courses in fashion design, carpentry, interior design, financial services, and business management. Allen D. Nease Senior High School is even more accomplished. In 2007, Newsweek ranked Nease #81 in its best high schools nationally, and nine of its students were 2010 National Merit Scholarship finalists. Nease excels in theater and music, offers the renowned International Baccalaureate Program, and is no slouch in sports, either: Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow tossed the pigskin here.

Learn more about schools in St. John's, FL

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Parkland, FL

Education quality score: 95.98
Median home value: $426,390
Population: 25,106

Parkland is a small, prosperous city located halfway between Miami and West Palm Beach. As its name suggests, Parkland boasts plenty of green space, which it protects with strict zoning laws. There are acres of parks, trails, and wilderness preserves, where visitors may catch a glimpse of a coyote, or even an alligator.

Parkland has managed to avoid the fast-food restaurants and big-box stores that cover so much of Florida, and takes pride in its small-town atmosphere. Its retail and business sections are clustered together village-style, welcoming bikers and pedestrians alike.

Kids in Parkland attend neighborhood schools in the Broward County school district. The district, which includes 230 traditional schools, 68 charter schools and one virtual school, routinely receives top marks from the Florida School Recognition Program, and boasts the state's first district-wide, anti-bullying program. Florida’s constitution mandates class size limits for all public schools. Up through third grade, classes cannot have more than 18 students, and even high school classes are limited to 25.

Westglades Middle School features state-of-the-art technology in its classrooms and labs, and offers a large number of advanced classes. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, named after the journalist and environmentalist who fought to protect the Everglades from development, has been repeatedly recognized by Newsweek as a top U.S. high school.

Learn more about schools in Parkland, FL.

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Southlake, TX

Education quality score: 95.74
Median home value: $476,880
Population: 26,297

This Fort Worth suburb is small, but mighty. Mighty pricey, that is. In 2008, Forbes named Southlake the U.S.'s most affluent neighborhood, with average household incomes topping $140,000. And whence comes much of the money? Plenty of residents commute to high-end jobs in the surrounding Dallas/Fort Worth metro area. Plus, Southlake is home to the mega online travel website, Travelocity.

Along with a generous offering of family-friendly parks and playgrounds and a stunningly low crime rate, Southlake is proud of its newly renovated town-square-cum-tony shopping center, Southlake Town Square, which draws visitors region-wide. But the town is especially proud of its schools — and of the Southlake Carroll Dragons football team — so much so all the district's schools share the "Carroll Dragon" mascot.

Most of the town's schools fall within the Carroll Independent School District, the largest district in the state to earn an "exemplary" rating from the Texas Education Agency — and for good reason. Carroll boasts a zero percent dropout rate and 98 percent of Carroll High School seniors go to college. Five of the district's schools were named Blue Ribbon schools by the U.S. Department of Education. The district has eco-cred to boot: One of its middle schools was recently awarded a $2 million grant to install solar panels.

Learn more about schools in Southlake, TX.

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