The top cities to live and learn in the South 2011

What are most family-friendly towns in the Southern states? From beachfront beauties to swanky suburbs, here are the 10 best cities that rank tops in housing and public schools.

By GreatSchools Staff

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.

Photo credit: Carl Mikoy


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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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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Severna Park, MD

Education quality score: 93.22
Median home value: $417,090
Population: 28,841

Not quite an official city, but rather a "census-designated place," Severna Park ranks as one of the country's top spots to find quality public schools. A diminutive community bordering the Chesapeake Bay, Severna Park is just an hour's drive from downtown Baltimore and its many big city amenities, including the preeminent Johns Hopkins University.

This coastal hamlet's school district, Anne Arundel County Public Schools, has 10 Blue Ribbon schools, and 80 percent of its graduates attend a two or four-year college or university. District schools maintain an admirably low student-to-teacher ratio: Classes in six through eighth grade average 20 students; for high school classes, there are no more than 23 students.

Severna Park's elementary schools consistently rank amongst the state's highest on the Maryland School Assessments. Severna Park High Schoolis known for its rigorous academics, but it doesn't rest on its scholarly laurels. The high school has won 83 state athletic championships, and hosts its popular annual musical revue, "Rock N' Roll Revival." High school students can further round out their education by joining after school clubs that include everything from calculus to fly fishing to Amnesty International.

Learn more about schools in Severna Park. MD .

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Brentwood, TN

Education quality score: 90.29
Median home value: $379,370
Population: 29,105

Brentwood is often said to be "where Nashville lives" and for good reason. Scores of Nashville's musical elite call this bucolic town home, including Jack White of the White Stripes, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks.

Filled with large homes on expansive lots, Brentwood offers residents a laid-back, country lifestyle, with access to 600 acres of parks and 20 miles of bike trails just 10 miles outside the big city. For those who can afford to live there, Brentwood boasts stellar public schools that rank among Tennessee’s best. The district staff is well educated, with 56 percent holding master's degrees and 53 percent holding a PhD or Ed.D. Perhaps an indication of its pro-education populace, Brentwood has one of the most highly trafficked public libraries in the state. Also, nine of the elementary schools in Brentwood's Williamson County School District offer an innovative pre-K program designed to help at-risk kids prepare for kindergarten.

Learn more about schools in Brentwood, TN.

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Potomac, MD

Educational quality score: 89.60
Median home value: $749,630
Population: 44,924

Living here is a "capitol" idea for brainy bureaucrats, with the D.C. area just 17 miles away. Selected by Forbes as the 7th best-educated small town in the U.S., the apples here don't fall far from the trees. Winston Churchill High School is a Blue Ribbon School, one of the nation's Top 100 (US News & World Report), with mind-boggling stats: 98.4 percent graduation rate, and 96.0 percent attendance rate. But academic statistics don’t tell the whole story. The performing arts program is considered exceptional. And the golf, ice hockey, and girls' swimming and diving teams have all competed in state championships.

Cold Spring Elementary has been #1 in Maryland for eight consecutive years in achieving advanced proficiency score, undoubtedly aided by its center for highly-gifted children. Cabin John Middle School, located in a new LEED-certified geothermal building, offers its students Mandarin as well as extra-curriculars like hip-hop, cartooning, and fashion design. And when you need a break from managing the nation, you can horse around with equestrian activities, enjoy water-sports in the Potomac (President John Quincy Adams skinny-dipped here), and nightlife in Washington D.C.

Learn more about schools in Potomac, MD.

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Niceville, FL

Education quality score: 89.00
Median home value: $190,700
Population: 12,602

"Come see us and enjoy paradise," proclaims this panhandle town's website, which promises luxuriating in 343 days of sunshine and swimming in Choctawhatchee Bay's balmy 80 degree Gulf water. Add in other homey pleasures — the Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival; the Easter Egg Dash; Cutest Baby contest; the Niceville Children's Park with bubble machine, rocking dinosaurs, and palm trees that spray water; the Skate Park with $2 helmet rental; and Turkey Creek Boardwalk with wildlife, canoeing, and tubing — and the temptation to join the population (as a Nicevillian?) gets mighty overwhelming. Plus, Niceville is governed by the esteemed and eternal Mayor Randall Wise, who's held office since 1971.

Is it fair that Niceville schools are also superb, ranked sixth in the Southern states?  C. W Ruckel Middle Schoois especially noteworthy — it's website reports that it has received a Florida "A" rating for 10 consecutive years. Nearly half of its pupils take a class in technology, with whiz kids regularly competing in the state's Science and Engineering Fair. Ruckel's student body is also physically fit — its teams captured 11 out of 18 possible regional championships and no squad had a losing record. Niceville Senior High School is also a star — three students there were recently recognized at the State Science Fair for their work in Medicine, Microbiology, and Engineering. 

Learn more about schools in Niceville, FL.

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Mount Pleasant, SC

Education quality score: 87.12
Median home value: $296,410
Population: 64,087

Located a mere four miles east of Charleston, Mount Pleasant has both the past and the present going for it. The scene of the first battle in the Revolutionary War and more than one Civil War skirmish, the town boasts a historic shopping district with colonial homes, and a thriving shrimp industry that even Forrest Gump could love.

When Business Week named Mount Pleasant as one of the best places to start a new business in 2009, no one could have predicted the downturn in the economy. Yet Mount Pleasant still attracts small business and plenty of accolades — most recently Money magazine’s named it one of the 100 Best Places to Live.

Belle, Charles Pinckney, James B. Edwards, Jennie Moore and Mamie Whitesides elementary schools and the Mount Pleasant Academy all had excellent test scores in 2010, according to the state Department of Education. Moultrie and Thomas C. Cario middle schools also scored excellent ratings. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education gave Charles Pinckney Elementary School one of its top honors: a Blue Ribbon School award.

Learn more about schools in Mount Pleasant, SC.

Photo credit: Charleston's TheDigitel

Collierville, TN

Education quality score: 86.09
Median home value: $266,610
Population: 39,040

Colliersville, Tennessee is an old-fashioned town that embraces a rich history, from the Native Americans who first lived here to Major Gen. William T. Sherman, who waged a Civil War battle. In the summertime, residents still listen to music at the old-time bandstand in the Historic Town Square. Yet with a median income that’s twice the state average, Collierville residents can also afford to invest in the future.

This Memphis suburb got its name after railroad conductors would yell “Howdy, Mr. Colliersville!” whenever trains rolled through town. People still crow about the town, especially about the schools’ shining test scores. Tennessee’s Department of Education gave A grades to Collierville schools in both 2009 and 2010, including Bailey Station, Collierville, Crosswind, Sycamore and Tara Oaks elementary schools, and Collierville and Schilling Farms middle schools. Collierville Middle School was among the first schools named a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education in 1982.

Learn more about schools in Collierville, TN.

Mandeville, LA

Education quality score: 85.95
Median home value: $243,540
Population: 11,954

Located about 30 miles from New Orleans, this hamlet was flooded along with the rest of southeast Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Not surprisingly, it was a traumatic time for the town: Many residents relocated to other towns, and after the floodwaters receded, some of the schools contended with the storm's aftermath, including internal damage and mold.

Nevertheless, Mandeville’s schools were an educational powerhouse before the hurricane, and they remain so today with the help of solid parent involvement. Mandeville schools log some of the highest test scores in the state, according to Louisiana’s Department of Education. Ponchartrain Elementary School in Mandeville, which benefits from smaller class sizes and higher funding than the state average, was the only school to get the highest five-star rating. At Mandeville High School, an admirable 93 percent of graduates went on to college.  

Learn more about schools in Mandeville, LA.

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