The top cities to live and learn in the West 2011

What are most family-friendly towns in the Western states? From beautiful coastal hamlets to brainy college enclaves, we found the 10 best cities for housing and public schools.

By GreatSchools Staff

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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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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Lake Oswego, OR

Education quality score: 93.74
Median home value: $392,040
Population: 36,973

This winning city has a laundry list of honors: It’s won the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ City Livability Award twice, each of the city’s 13 schools has been named an “Exceptional School” by the state of Oregon, and it made Money magazine’s top 100 places to live in 2009. Plus, sitting on the banks of the Willamette River and Lake Oswego, the city has acres of parks, walkways, and outdoor recreation, but it’s just a stone’s throw from the state’s major cities. While its humble roots are in the fur trade, lumber mills, and iron manufacturing, Lake Oswego is one of the state’s most affluent and cultural cities, renowned for its stellar arts organizations and outstanding schools.

Lake Oswego schools outperform most in the state. More than 90 percent of graduates continue to college, and last year 16 students were National Merit Finalists considered for one of 2,500 scholarships nationwide based on outstanding academic achievement – and four students won.

What makes the schools special? For starters, consistently small classes, good student-teacher ratios, and small neighborhood schools play a key role. But the district also offers a host of enviable programs, including before- and after-school programs, athletics, gifted programs, art, and music (starting in first grade). Currently, there are 6,767 students in nine elementary schools, two junior high schools, and two high schools – but that may be about to change. Anticipating a huge budget shortfall for next year, the city is grappling with potential solutions, including closing some elementary schools and moving sixth grade to middle school. Another dark cloud? The possibility of teacher layoffs looms.

Learn more about all schools in Lake Oswego, OR.

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Sammamish, WA

Education quality score: 92.78
Median home price: $519,060
Population: 41,916

Sammamish's name comes from two Native-American words: Samena (hunter), and mish (people). But people who find themselves in this pretty town don't need to hunt for quality schools and homes. Located conveniently near Seattle, but nicely secluded on Lake Sammamish's scenic eastern shore, residents get the best of rural and suburban perks.

Sammamish may not have a post office, but it does have a symphony orchestra - and stellar schools in two separate districts. Sammamish-area schools are bursting with innovative and award-winning programs: Over half the seniors at Skyline High School are enrolled in one or more International Baccalaureate (IB) classes, the Math Club placed first in the State Math Competition, and the cheerleading squad won recognition at the 2011 state championships. Eastlake High School, along with McAuliffe Elementary School and Mead Elementary School, were honored recently for “overall excellence” by the Washington State Board of Education.

Learn more about schools in Sammamish, WA

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Lafayette, CA

Educational quality score: 89.58
Median home value: $811,210
Population: 25,035

Take a walk on the tree-lined streets of Lafayette, California, and you'd never know that prospectors tried drilling for oil here at the turn of the 20th century. Residents have long since abandoned working in oil fields in lieu of commuting to high-rise offices in nearby San Francisco and Oakland.

It's no wonder that San Francisco 49er Joe Montana has, like so many other deep-pocketed Bay Area folks, set roots here. Lafayette's sprawling, hillside ranch homes and manses cost well above the regional average — and median incomes are equally bountiful. The city's residents expect to get a lot from the six public schools in town — and they're seldom disappointed.

A local foundation supports Lafayette's education system by contributing $1.3 million a year in science, writing, and music classes, including creative writing classes for all 10th-graders in the district. This commitment to creativity may be one reason why Lafayette Elementary School  was among California's top Distinguished Schools in 2010. Impressive results in the Academic Performance Index put Acalanes High School in third place among all high schools in the state. The high school also secured a Silver Medal in U.S. News & World Report's most recent list of best high schools in the country.

Learn more about schools in Lafayette, CA.

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Palo Alto, CA

Educational quality score: 89.23
Median home value: $1,080,980
Population: 59,974

Being a university town has its perks, especially when the university is Stanford. With a diverse college culture and steady economic base, there are plenty of good reasons why Palo Alto is birthplace to Silicon Valley mega-success stories Google and Facebook. (High-tech star-gazing in Palo Alto? Keep on the lookout for Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs.) For starters, nearly half the population holds advanced degrees. Palo Alto has a reputation for hatching the next big thing — and for educating the future brain trust to create it.

That may be why the 11,600 students who attend Palo Alto's public schools have some pretty lofty standards. Seven out of every 10 Palo Alto High School students take Advanced Placement courses, and almost all of them pass. U.S. News & World Report ranked not one, but two Palo Alto high schools, in its most recent list of America's Best High Schools: Henry M. Gunn High School was number 67; Palo Alto High School number 83.

Living in a brain trust breeding ground doesn't come cheap, of course. One Palo Alto neighborhood ranked 73rd in the U.S.'s 100 priciest zip codes, while two others were in the top 200, according to Forbes. With average home prices in 2010 exceeding $1.4 million, Coldwell Banker named Palo Alto the second most expensive college town in America, right behind Newport Beach, California.

Learn more about schools in Palo Alto, CA.

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Piedmont, CA

Educational quality index: 87.96
Median home value: $730,620
Population: 10,596

A suburban oasis surrounded by Oakland, tiny Piedmont has received "Best Place to Live" recognition from both CNN Money and Forbes. Long a Mecca for Bay Area parents seeking excellent schools without entering a lottery (required for enrollment in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland school districts), Piedmont is a little town with famously high performing schools. Piedmont Middle School boasts teachers with an average 15 years experience, a chess club, film club, and athletics that include rock climbing and kayaking on the Bay.

Piedmont High School is a Blue Ribbon School, a California Distinguished School, and the host of a bizarre Bird-Calling Contest that often wings its winner to a guest slot on Late Night with David Lettermen. The Scottish-themed school calls its yearbook the "Clan-O-Log," and its mascot is a tartan-kilted Highlander, but the school has moved beyond its European traditions, offering Mandarin to a student body that is now 22 percent Asian. An impressive 98 percent of the student body attends four-year colleges and universities, over one-third to the University of California system, and many others to Ivy Leagues.

All this success, wrapped in a mild climate, just minutes away from the distracting pleasures of San Francisco, makes Piedmont a natural choice for families that can afford it.

Learn more about schools in Piedmont, CA.

Los Alamos, NM

Education quality score: 87.85
Median home value: $242,150
Population: 12,254

Decades after the Manhattan Project ended, the atomic bomb's hometown is still aflush with research jobs from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which is one primary reason why household incomes average over $100,000. It’s also got many other attractions, including breathtaking canyons, mesas, and cliffs, great golf courses, and a slot as one of U.S. News & World Report’s best places to retire. The low crime and unemployment rates don’t hurt, either.

Students get a boost from the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation, which provided more than $3.7 million in education grants and $331,000 in college scholarships in 2010. You’d think research on cancer genomes and shock wave technology would hardly be kids’ stuff, but students regularly win top prizes at the state science fair on these topics and more. Los Alamos High School landed on U.S. News & World Report’s most recent list of Best High Schools in America. This school also led the state in the number of students named as semifinalists for a National Merit Scholarship in 2010.

Learn more about schools in Los Alamos, NM.

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Greenwood Village, CO

Education quality score: 87.55
Median home price: $552,020
Population: 13.762

Just south of Denver, Greenwood Village is an appealing locale for parents looking to settle in the mountain West. The community is educated and its economy robust — Greenwood Village is headquarters for major companies including eBags, the Red Robin restaurant chain, and Western Union. It's the site of Fiddler's Green Amphitheatre (recently rechristened Comfort Dental Amphitheatre), the area's largest outdoor amphitheater, and nearby Westlands Park, which features soccer fields and playgrounds. And downtown Denver is less than 15 miles away.

Greenwood Village's six elementary schools, three middle schools, and two high schools (in the Cherry Creek and Littleton School Districts) pride themselves on their superlative achievements. Thirteen Cherry Creek schools and five Littleton schools received the Colorado Department of Education’s “John Irwin Award,” which recognizes the top eight percent of schools that demonstrate the highest achievement on statewide assessments. Meanwhile, schools in the Littleton district, nationally recognized for its Inspired Writing program, typically score 15 percentage points higher than the state average on standardized tests. Littleton High School's class of 2009 was awarded nearly $30 million in college scholarships, and in 2011 eight district seniors were named National Merit Finalists.

Learn more about schools in Greenwood Village, CO.

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