The top cities to live and learn in the Midwest 2011

Looking for the most family-friendly metropolis in the Midwest? From pastoral prairie towns to patriotic 'burbs, we found the 10 best cities for housing and public schools.

By GreatSchools Staff

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.

Photo credit: Travelin' Librarian

Haslett, MI

Education quality score: 85.91
Median home value: $123,950
Population: 10,962

The best for less! Not only are Haslett's homes a downright bargain, but residents here enjoy the delights of both suave urbanity and rustic ruralness. Culture, shopping, and dining can be consumed at nearby Lansing (the state capital) and East Lansing (home of Michigan State University). What's more, natural tranquility is right out the door with adjacent 500-acre Lake Lansing's boating, fishing, swimming, volleyball, and hiking pleasures.  

Haslett's schools boast a plethora of both fun and high-IQ, extra-curricular options. The Science Olympiad team of Haslett Middle School grabbed first place in regional competition, and electives of Spanish, band, and choir are available. Haslett High School offers seven choirs, plus inventively eclectic clubs that include writing, anime, French, Harry Potter, Japanese, film, fencing, and Quiz Bowl. Vera Ralya Elementary School also receives high marks from parents for its exceptional teachers and beloved principal.

Learn more about schools in Haslett, MI.

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Westlake, OH

Education quality score: 85.68
Median home value: $190,380
Population: 30,418

This affluent Cleveland bedroom community — presently celebrating its bicentennial anniversary with great fanfare — bespeaks the town's close-knit and family-friendly feel. Bicentennial aside, every year is filled with festivity, including the annual Pumpkin Festival, Christmas Tree Lighting, July 4th Parade and Liberty Fest, Summer Concerts in the Park, and "Westlake in Bloom" flower garden competition. Plus, it's got four golf courses and a vibrant community theater. Youthful brainpower is also present in the town's satellite campus of Cleveland State University.

Westlake’s school district website reports that it is consistently in the top four percent state-wide, earning an “Excellent” rating on the Ohio State Report CardLee Burneson Middle School has an intimate 17:1 student-teacher ratio; a conference champion girls basketball team; and a Civil War Ball with authentic food, music, dances, and costumes. Westlake High School's music programs are top-ranked, most notably the symphonic wind ensemble that's captured state champions for seven consecutive years. Multiple clubs are offered, from the "League of Fine Dining" to S.A.D.D. (Students Against Destructive Decisions). Seeking a private school? There are two highly regarded religious institutes (Westside Christian Academy and St. Paul Lutheran School), one outstanding Montessori (Montessori Children's School), and the Westlake Christian Academy.

Learn more about schools in Westlake, OH.

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Mason, OH

Education quality score: 85.17
Median home value: $182.850
Population: 30,508

George Clooney is a native son of this fast-growing Cincinnati 'burb, which in 2010 ranked #81 on CNN Money's "Top 100 Places to Live in the United States." Residents enjoy the Lindner Family Tennis Center, two water parks, and Kings Island theme park (voted "Best Kids Area" in the U.S. for nine years by Amusement Today). A family town with 67.5 percent of its households containing married couples, Mason boasts a school district that earns a perfect score — 26 out of 26 — every year on its Ohio Report Card, earning a rating of 5th out of the state’s 613 districts. Classrooms are new and up-to-date, with a total of 28 computer labs that provide one computer for every three students.

With 3000-plus student, William Mason High School is without argument huge, but it is a Silver Medalist on Newsweek's 2008 list of the top public high schools nationwide. An impressive 85 percent of the students are enrolled in extra-curricular activities, obtaining state championships in multiple, diverse areas like math team, debate team, girls' basketball, and girls' track. The school newspaper, art department, and wind symphony are also among the state's best. Graduating students have entered numerous Ivy League schools and received athletic scholarships in a dozen sports. Contributing heavily to the success is a young, highly motivated faculty that includes Cindy Donnelly, recently honored by the University of Cincinnati as the “Financial Education Teacher of the Year.”

Learn more about schools in Mason, OH.

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North Royalton, OH

Education quality score: 84.90
Median home value: $142,760
Population: 29,363

Oompah-pah! Oompah! The marching band at North Royalton High School, one of the best in Ohio, has trumpeted at the Rose Bowl and Indianapolis 500, with almost 300 students enrolled in its ranks annually. Five choirs also chime in this second-suburb-near-Cleveland on this list. Academically, North Royalton makes the best of good teachers and high parent involvement, with 90 percent of its graduates entering college. A recent activity that exemplifies community support is the "Stuff the Bus" food drive, sponsored by school bus drivers. Albion Elementary School consistently earns an "Excellent" rating on its state report card, plus it offers student leadership positions and has earned Buckeye Best Healthy School awards for three years. This year, Royal View Elementary was named a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education, too.

As for family life, North Royalton offers a relaxed, small-town pace just 15 miles from the bustling urbanism of Akron (population 200,000) and 18 minutes from Cleveland (population 400,000). Plus, it provides top-notch outdoor spaces, including a soon-to-be new 15-acre park with walking trails, a community garden, and natural springs in the heart of town.

Learn more about schools in North Royalton, OH.

Brookfield, WI

Education quality score: 94.10
Median home value: $241,260
Population: 38,922

If you’re a fan of the Little House series, you may fondly remember Laura’s ma, Caroline, grew up here. In many ways, Brookfield remains a serene, outdoorsy place to grow up with thousands of acres of open space. Just 10 miles from Milwaukee, Brookfield also doubles as a modern city with a thriving business sector primarily made up of health care, technology, manufacturing, and financial services. The engaged community and its highly trained educators have landed Brookfield at the top of the heap for our best schools list.

Students from Brookfield and several surrounding communities are served by the Elmbrook School District. The district's made it a priority to involve the whole school community in decision making. Parents and staff serve on a host of committees and advisory boards on gifted and special education, curriculum planning, booster clubs, and parent legislative affairs. The collaboration is paying off: In a recent survey, 92 percent of parents reported being satisfied with their child’s school. The faculty also draws kudos: All meet or exceed national highly qualified status, 60 percent hold a master's degree, and many of the support staff hold professional degrees and certifications beyond what’s required for their positions. Compared to surrounding communities, Elmbrook spends the least on administration and directs the most money directly to instruction. The district gets its share of academic kudos, with 93 percent earning proficient or advanced scores in reading and math, and 88 percent of AP students scoring a three or higher on AP exams. But challenging extracurricular activities also get their due. Central High School placed first in the state championship of the National Economics Challenge and East High School won their seventh consecutive conference championship in forensics.

Learn more about schools in Brookfield, WI

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Franklin, WI

Education quality score: 84.75
Median home value: $197,800
Population: 35,101

First it was a hardwood forest where Native Americans hunted deer, bear, rabbit, and wolves. Next, it was fertile farmland with Irish, Dutch, and German settlers. And now, Franklin in the breathtaking Root River Valley is the fastest-growing suburb of Milwaukee, included on Forbes 2009 list of 100 "Best Places to Live." Parks, bike trails, untouched wetlands, prairies, and timberland encircle the town, with urban lures like major sports teams, zoos, museums, concerts, and festivals just a few miles further.

Every academic level here is exemplary. Southwood Glen Elementary School has instituted the cutting edge innovation of "recess before lunch." Forest Park Middle School provides a Geography Bee, marine life excursions to Florida, and Washington D.C. history and heritage tours. Franklin High School maintains imaginative options with extra-curriculars like robotics, model United Nations, co-ed skiing, forensics, and parkour. Other academic institutes include St. Paul's Lutheran Church School, Franklin's St. Martin of Tours Parish School,and Indian Community School of Milwaukee, all K-8s with respectable reputations. 

Learn more about schools in Franklin, WI.

Photo credit: John Michlig

Fishers, IN

Education Quality Index: 84.10
Median Home Value: $179,590
Population: 69,3223

About 20 miles northeast of Indianopolis, Fishers, Indiana offers a wealth of family-friendly activities, including a weekly farmers market and an annual Renaissance Faire that features frisbee-catching dogs.

Few towns across the United States are booming like Fishers. At a time when many cities are still stuck in the recession, this robust prairie town was posting a nearly 48 percent job growth in just seven years, according to city officials. That may be why Fishers residents have a higher household income than some of their Indiana neighbors, and why people are flocking to the town in droves. The population jumped 42 percent between 2000 and 2007.

Excellent schools are another reason why residents love Fishers. Elementary school students in 2010 posted test scores in the top 10 percent, according to the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress-Plus. Fishers High School students also rated well, earning a spot on U.S. News & World Report’s list of America’s Best High Schools.

Learn more about schools in Fishers, IN.

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Plainfield, IN

Education quality score: 83.86
Median home value: $135,330
Population: 22,907

Plainfield, Indiana has a reputation for not sitting on the sidelines. In 1842, when the town wanted federal officials to notice how bad the roads were, enraged citizens staged a publicity stunt to spill then-President Martin Van Buren’s coach onto the roadway and the President into the mud.

Since then, the town has made a practice of putting tax dollars to work, especially in its six elementary, middle, and high schools. Plainfield High School was one of only 10 lauded in 2009 by the Indiana’s Chamber of Commerce for excellence, despite the fact that it gets less spending per student than many other schools in the state. Out of 1,800 Indiana schools, four Plainfield elementary schools got four-star ratings from the state Department of Education.

The town gets business honors, too. Indiana's State Chamber of Commerce ranked Plainfield number six among the best places to work in Indiana.

Learn more about schools in Plainfield, IN.

Upper Arlington, OH

Education quality score: 83.73
Median home value: $191,070
Population: 31,244

A mecca of family-friendly activities, this “green” city (residents proudly recycle) boasts an annual arts festival, Christmas tree lighting, and homegrown Fourth of July parade. With an easy commute to Columbus, OH, residents enjoy affordable homes and some of the best schools in the state. Students here are creative, brainy, and athletic. Upper Arlington schools consistently have scored excellent ratings from the state Department of Education over the past decade. Test scores across all grades land in the top 10 percent compared with other schools in the state.

Not only does Upper Arlington High School have a national award-winning literary magazine, students are fierce competitors in and out of the water: The high school has dominated the state championships in lacrosse, water polo, swimming, and diving.

Learn more about schools in Upper Arlington, OH.

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