Top cities to live and learn in the Northeast 2011

What are most family-friendly towns in the Northeast? From cozy coastal hamlets to bucolic bedroom suburbs, we found the 10 best cities that rank tops in housing and 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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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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Basking Ridge, NJ

Educational quality score: 94.17
Median home value: $685,300
Population: 24,600

Speech! Speech! The Ridge High School Forensics Team (speech and debate) has defeated all opponents for the state championship for 10 consecutive years, plus it dominated a national tournament by out-arguing 105 rival schools from 30 states. One assertion that isn’t debatable? That Basking Ridge has exceptional schools. Ridge High is a Blue Ribbon School, ranked #2 in New Jersey by Newsweek in 2010, with enrichment activities that range from a marching band to a ski squad.

William Annin Middle School
has one of the best athletic departments in New Jersey, plus loads of intriguing electives including Latin, computer game design, and international cooking. All this in a lovely place blessed with both high -ech industry and rich tradition: Verizon Wireless resides here, but there's also a historic district with preserved colonial buildings and a 600-year-old oak tree, under which George Washington is said to have enjoyed a picnic. There's even an ominous "Devil Tree," a gnarled oak that, according to lore, will curse and kill anyone who dares cut it down. Word is the local kids are far too wise to try.

Learn more about schools in Basking Ridge, NJ.

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Jericho, NY

Educational quality index: 94.17
Median home value: $644,890
Population: 12,812

This Long Island hamlet was originally settled by Quakers who opposed slavery by working in the Underground Railroad. Social conscience and humanitarianism are now local traditions, carried forth in the local schools. Jericho Middle School offers a discussion class that examines “privilege, discrimination, and oppression,” and has created its own Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief Fund, and Salvation Army Clothing Drive. Jericho Senior High School celebrates "Diversity Day" and is also spearheading charity projects: a "Bowl-A-Thon" for Habitat for Humanity, and a basketball tournament called "Alley-Oop for Autism."

All this altruism doesn't seem to distract students from studying. Jericho High placed #2 in New York, and #32 in the U.S. in Newsweek's 2010 list. An impressive 83 percent of the 2010 graduating class completed advanced placement courses, with 95 percent eventually packing their luggage for four-year colleges and universities. Where are they going? Twenty-three Jericho grads are headed to Cornell, 20 to New York University, and seven to Penn State; others will attend MIT, Yale, Harvard, and Cal Tech. Brilliance with a heart – isn't that what every parent hopes for his or her child?

Learn more about schools in Jericho, NY.

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New Canaan, CT

Educational quality score: 91.57
Median home value: $1,195,820
Population: 19,952

New Canaan earns a spot on the map for its modern architecture and gorgeous public parks. Situated close to Stamford and about an hour away from New York City, New Canaan residents are both educated and affluent. More than half the population of New Canaan has a college degree.

In 2010, West School (PK-4) had the highest reading, writing, and math scores in the state, according to Connecticut Mastery Test, while East School (also an elementary) ranked number 13. From sports to theater, New Canaan High School students are also well-rounded. Students have posted superior performances in lacrosse, musical production, and academics. No wonder New Canaan High landed a Silver Medal in U.S. News & World Report's 2010 list of America's Best High Schools. Their brainiac achievements may be due in part to an outstanding school library, lauded by the American Association of School Librarians and the Connecticut Association of School Librarians for its excellent media program in 2010.

Learn more about schools in New Canaan, CT.

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Belmont, MA

Educational quality score: 90.90
Median home value: $551,920
Population: 23,217

This bucolic Boston suburb's streets are lined with stately mansions — thus its nickname, “the town of homes." Belmont has no end of verdant open space, and its schools offer a wealth of academic advantages.

Of all Belmont's schools — there are four elementary, one middle, and one high — Belmont High School 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, which provides a stunning 17 Advanced Placement courses, outstanding athletic departments, and a nationally recognized music program, was rated among the top 100 for public schools.

In Belmont, high expectations begin early. From elementary school on, students receive stellar test scores and high marks. These expectations include a tradition of community service for even the youngest residents: Kindergartens through 12th-grade students are expected to participate regularly in volunteer activities, from working in food banks to hosting relief fundraisers. Belmont adults set a good example: Parents and town organizations have a record of contributing money and time to improve local schools, although recently, hard times have fallen on this upscale town, with less support than usual from taxpayers.

Learn more about schools in Belmont, MA.

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Winchester, MA

Educational quality score: 90.36
Median home value: $601,920
Population: 21.117

Take a short train ride out of Boston and you'll find yourself in a recreation wonderland of ponds, lakes, rivers, and forests. Winchester offers canoeing, sailing, cross-country skiing, fishing, ice-skating, bicycling, and horseback riding at its Mystic Lakes, Winter Pond, Winchester Trails, and Middlesex Falls Reservation. Plus, Winchester is one of the best school districts in arguably the very best education state.

Looking for an elementary school?  Muraco Elementary School — named after a local veteran who died in Vietnam — offers a Multicultural Fair and outdoor exploratory classes. McCall Middle School has an enviable 15.9 to one student-teacher ratio to maintain the focus of hormone-hassled teens and tweeners. Winchester High School provides "Family Dinners" for pupils and parents at downtown restaurants, plus an exceptionally active music department. Indeed, if the Winchester air seems particularly harmonious, it may be because cellist Yo-Yo Ma lives here with his family.

Learn more about schools in Winchester, MA.

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Madison, CT

Educational quality score: 90.06
Median home price: $450,350
Population: 18,844

Not far from New Haven, Madison is a coastal town and the site of popular Hammonasset Beach State Park, which features over two miles of public beach. Madison community leaders work hard to maintain the town's unique character by limiting the development of franchises. Its historic downtown includes a bookstore, restaurants, shops, and the century-old brick E. C. Scranton Library.

Madison ranks third in Connecticut (after New Canaan and Darien) for student scores on the CMT and CAPT, two statewide standardized tests. An admirable 94 percent of the 2009 class went on to four-year colleges, and the Robert Brown Middle School was tapped as a National Blue Ribbon School.

Wait, there's more! In Madison, even the jocks are brainiacs: For the past four years, the girls' soccer team at Daniel Hand High School received the state's National Team Academic Award for a team GPA exceeding 3.0. Chalk it up to a tight-knit community, schools with high expectations, and an abundance of opportunities.

Learn more about schools in Madison, CT.

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Concord, MA

Educational quality index: 89.56
Median home value: $611,320
Population: 16,846

Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Alcott. "The biggest little place in America," is Henry James' nickname for this scribblers' history town, where literary giants now rest on Author's Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Only 19 miles from Boston, Concord boasts 26 registered historical buildings and its own Revolutionary War skirmish, when Yankee guerillas routed the Redcoats. Walden Pond offers the perfect picnic spot for reading the musings of local luminaries, while nibbling on Concord grapes (naturally), developed by a local grower.

Not surprisingly, Concord-Carlisle High School carries on the town’s tradition of thinking, writing, and speaking out. Rated #1 in cost-efficiency among high schools in eastern Massachusetts, the high school offers dozens of intriguing extra-curriculars like a political journal, literary review, radio station, Amnesty International chapter, Gay/Straight Alliance group, two environmental clubs, and Bass fishing club. In sports, the boys' soccer team was ranked #16 nationally in 2010, with football and ski squads also of championship caliber.

Learn more about schools in Concord, MA.

Photo credit: Sebastià Giralt