If you could send your children to school anywhere...
April 18, 2015 9:24 AM   Subscribe

If you had no ties to your community, family, or career and your only purpose in life was to make certain that your children had the best public school education possible, where would you live?

Both children are above average and well behaved. The 8 year old is artistic and the 11 year old is scientific. Both are very musical. Where should I move to give them the school experience that they need? We are currently in a Louisiana school system so I understand that they will have some catching up to do. I don't mind that. It's better than them always being bored.

What has been your best public school for your children? What makes it so great?
posted by myselfasme to Education (38 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Are you willing to leave the country?
posted by box at 9:34 AM on April 18, 2015 [6 favorites]

Finland has an extremely well regarded public education system. Kids there don't even start school until the age of 7, do relatively little homework and few tests, and consistently rank in the top of educational outcomes. University is free. In the Netherlands, schools are publicly funded but privately run, so you have a lot of choice when it comes to the approach to education. In general, most northern European countries have excellent public education systems that value creativity. If I were going to relocate (and I do think about it) that would be a huge factor in my decision.
posted by Emanuel at 9:38 AM on April 18, 2015 [7 favorites]


Failing that, Irvine, California.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:44 AM on April 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

I went to a top-tier college and was surrounded by extremely bright kids who had had mostly excellent educations. I was so envious. We compared our high school experiences a lot.

My friends who seemed to have the best of all public education opportunities were the ones who lived in major American cities or in wealthy suburbs of major American cities. Or, they lived in a not-so-great suburb near the wealthy suburb and their parents fought really hard and petitioned the school boards for them to get into the wealthy suburb's schools. These kids went places like New Trier and Rye and Stuyvesant, places that when you're an academic type kid you know about, because those are the places where the kids who always kick your butt in competitions come from.
posted by phunniemee at 9:59 AM on April 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

I am impressed with schools like Thomas Jefferson and Hunter College High School. Those kids came to college without necessarily having been raised in a bubble (they're magnet schools) and had a very solid grasp of the fundamentals.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 10:12 AM on April 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Irvine. Montgomery County, Maryland. Many of Chicago's northern suburbs (Winnetka, Wilmette, Glenview, Northbrook).

Follow the money, basically.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 10:13 AM on April 18, 2015 [5 favorites]

Come to the Netherlands. Our daughter goes to the Werkplaats/Kees Boeke school. It is quite amazing and the reason we bought a house here.
posted by hz37 at 10:48 AM on April 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

If your kids can't fit in with the dominant culture of the community and the schools, it's not going to benefit them, no matter how excellent the facilities or teachers. For example, San Marino, CA has a great school system, but the kids (almost universally) go to Saturday classes, take extra language, music, sports lessons outside of school. Parents are expected to donate time and money, even at public schools. If you're not prepared to do the additional work that makes you and your family fit in with the other families, your kids will have a much harder time, no matter where you go. It's worth investigating the entire community before you make a big life change.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:48 AM on April 18, 2015 [8 favorites]

Consider that their odds of getting in to a good college are better as top students in a poor school system, ironically. Or more accurately, a poor state.
posted by spitbull at 11:03 AM on April 18, 2015 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far. Sadly, I cannot afford to leave the country.
posted by myselfasme at 11:04 AM on April 18, 2015

Then your answer is "most rich suburbs." Arguably the north shore of Long Island, the tonier parts in f LA and DC and Chicago, or Marin County should probably score highest, or at least they seem to dominate among the elite college students I see refreshed every year.
posted by spitbull at 11:06 AM on April 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

I would suggest a college town in a blue state. I went to public school in Amherst MA for example and felt very well prepared for my medium-prestigious liberal arts college and later medical school. Many of my classmates in higher ed had gone to private school, but I felt my education was just as good, and maybe better because of exposure to racial/economic/cultural diversity in public school.
posted by genmonster at 11:14 AM on April 18, 2015 [10 favorites]

My kids are/were in the Montgomery County MD (DC suburbs) public schools--we've got several nationally ranked open enrollment public high schools. The plus is that it's a huge district with a lot of specialized programs, advanced learning opportunities, and a culture of academic excellence esp. at the best schools. Even the poorer-performing schools are better than average. One downside is that it is, of course, an expensive place to live, especially if you want to be in the zoning for the top HSs (Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Poolesville, etc.). Another is that it's a little Lake Wobegon-ish. ALL the kids are above average. If you're a 75%er and not a 95%er, it can be hard to stand out. And living someplace where the median household income is north of 6 figures can warp kids' perspectives a little.
posted by drlith at 11:27 AM on April 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Minneapolis suburbs. Minnetonka, Eden Prairie, Edina, Wayzata, and Orono are often among the top districts in the country. And they're relatively cheap places to live. But they are far from the city so most people have long commutes.
posted by miyabo at 11:57 AM on April 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

Irvine has great schools and very low crime, but so do many, many affluent cities. As mentioned above, it's all about the money. I teach in a district next to Irvine, and my school has art, music, tech, chess, language, etc. classes all funded by the parents and the PTA.

Also as mentioned above, living in the most wealthy places can mess up your kids if you're not careful... I've had families leave my school because they didn't want their kids expecting limos and game trucks at every birthday party.

Here are the national rankings of high schools from US News and World Report. They're kind of all over the place.
posted by Huck500 at 12:00 PM on April 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts and from what I can tell, Cambridge Rindge & Latin is one of the greatest, most diverse, most vibrant and most interesting high schools in the country. I live right across the street from it and I love watching & listening to those kids living their lives. Just got a lot of complicated press because the younger Tsaernev graduated from there, but I would send my children there in a heartbeat. I assume the lower-level schools in Cambridge are also top notch.

I also have a really amazing student right now who graduated from Brookline High School and she was telling me about a pilot program she participated that essentially created a school-within-a-school that was run on a democratic town-meeting model and sounded fan-fucking-tastic, though I don't know *that* much about it.

Obviously, property values here are through the roof but I don't think all (or even most) of the kids at Cambridge Rindge & Latin come from super wealthy families. To be honest, I've wondered before how that works.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 12:00 PM on April 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 2nding college town -- Chapel Hill, Ann Arbor, Cambridge, etc. You want not just a well-off neighborhood, but one with a highly-educated population that is actually sending their kids to the public schools.
posted by apparently at 12:03 PM on April 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

In general, you probably want to look for regions or states that are more liberal leaning, financially stable, and that value education.*

Massachusetts has some really great schools. In addition to Cambridge Rindge and Latin, I've also heard that Boston Latin is usually ranked as one of the best high schools in the US.

In the suburbs outside of Boston, I know that Newton North High School has a very good reputation. Acton-Boxborough High School and Sharon High School are also supposed to be very good. (I didn't go there myself, but I have tutored students at these last two schools.) What all these suburbs have in common is that they are quite affluent. (Same thing with Brookline High School, mentioned above.)

*As opposed to the state I grew up where they kept trying to cut out class periods and eliminate all music and arts from the high school curriculum.
posted by litera scripta manet at 12:12 PM on April 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Sorry, I should add that I think you have to take exams to qualify for Boston Latin, along the lines of what you have to do for certain prestigious NYC schools like Stuyvesant.
posted by litera scripta manet at 12:15 PM on April 18, 2015

I had an amazing public school education in one of the Northern Virginia suburbs of DC. It wasn't hyper-rich at the time, or at least, the kids in the public schools were mostly not rich, but now it is. It costs just shy of $1 million to buy even a very modest house there, the atmosphere is very competitive for the kids, etc. I and my childhood friends mostly can't afford to live there anymore. The money factor is really out of control in the best school districts around DC.... the next-best districts might be a good bet if you can get a well-paying job, since the area does have a lot of "knowledge worker" parents who will press for good schools, but who still might not be in the financial situation that lets them buy in the most expensive areas.

Anyway, mainly for money reasons, I think you may do better looking at a college town area like the Pioneer Valley area of Massachusetts, Ithaca NY, or if you want to stay closer to home maybe one of the southern college towns like the Triangle area of NC. (Ann Arbor is uncommonly expensive for a college town, so I would maybe put that lower on your list.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:54 PM on April 18, 2015

Nthing college town. My college town of choice is Claremont, CA.
posted by janey47 at 12:59 PM on April 18, 2015

I'm going to be a dissenting voice and say that the school you send your kids to doesn't matter as much as your commitment to their education.

I grew up in India, and up until tenth grade, I was in a school system that is a relic from the British Raj, with class sizes of over fifty and teachers who taught to the lowest common denominator, not gifted children like me.

What made the difference? My parents, and specifically, my mother, investing in my education. The importance of learning was always emphasised, right from when I was little. My parents read to me as a child, and bought me pretty much any book I wanted. My mother encouraged me to read widely, and my grandfather always had time to debate with me on pretty much any subject under the sun. I also had the benefit of being the youngest of five bookworm cousins, giving me access to more books than most children in India can dream of, and encouragement to pursue my interests.

So I guess the short version is that it's not the school you put your children into that's important, in the end, what you do to encourage them to learn (not just to get good grades; that's a very important difference) makes a big difference.
posted by Tamanna at 1:12 PM on April 18, 2015 [15 favorites]

College towns for sure. My family valued education but wasn't wealthy, and I felt comfortable at a very good public school in a small college town, where all my friends' parents were professors or staff at the university. Honestly, that sort of pervasive cultural attitude is going to be just as important as the objective quality of the school -- everyone I knew took the importance of college for granted, so we all worked hard and planned on it, but also a fair number of us were going to have to rely on scholarships and that wasn't unusual or embarrassing like it might have been in a super-wealthy suburb.
posted by you're a kitty! at 1:17 PM on April 18, 2015

I teach in Marin County, and if you can afford to live here, particularly in the fantastically wealthy community of Tiburon (3 million for the average small single family home), your kids will have great schools. Our test scores are always high, and at my school (the only middle school in Tiburon), we have fantastic teachers and great technology access (all students get a MacBook each year in MS). Students also have great elective choices, including Steel Pans, robotics, independent media projects (basically make your own game/movie/short/etc.), coding, etc.

That's the thing about choosing a school: it's about way more than test scores. It's looking at elective choices, seeing the quality of the teaching staff, access to technology, funding, etc. And that is different for every district, and not every "great school" meets the needs of every individual student. Kids who are technologically savvy and into art or digital media do well at our school. We have a great science department with lots of science-themed electives, so those kids do well too. But students coming from a different background than the super-rich in Marin often struggle.

So finding the "right school" for your kids will require a lot of visiting and investigation. Good luck. Memail me if you want more information about Marin schools.
posted by guster4lovers at 1:24 PM on April 18, 2015

I just read an article on the web saying the teachers were not as important as parents for educational success. One article means nothing, I suppose, but I think the quality of thought and problem-solving in the home is very important. Several posters above have made the same point.

I also agree that putting a kid in an unfamiliar environment is not good.

I live next to a very rich suburban town (Greenwich, CT), and the reputation is that it's a good school but the students are very status conscious in the "my clothes are more expensive than your clothes" sort of way.

You want a school district with a record of success which you can evaluate by SAT scores, commitment to AP courses, and the number of graduates that go on to good schools like the Ivies, Stanford, Duke, etc. You will find those things in college towns, but lots of other towns as well.
posted by SemiSalt at 1:35 PM on April 18, 2015

The thing about suburbs with excellent schools is that they are very expensive to buy or rent in -- everybody tries to move there, driving prices up and up. You may want to look into the Twin Cities area, where there's a rather unique law that pools taxes from municipalities around the region and spreads them around. This means that there's less disparity in school funding from one suburb to the next, and apparently it's allowed lots of good schools to exist in affordable areas. (Read a recent article about this, darned if I can find it now googling though...)
posted by wyzewoman at 2:00 PM on April 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ithaca had a great high school back in the day, I don't know what it's like now but I'll bet it's still pretty good. There is only one high school, which serves pretty much the entire county, so you get a really broad cross-section of kids. I eventually realized that some Cornell faculty sent their kids to boarding school, but not very many. Real estate is cheap but there aren't many jobs - or, rather, there are far too many educated people chasing the jobs that are there.
posted by mr vino at 2:28 PM on April 18, 2015

Acton-Boxborough High School

I went there! The kids are assholes but I got a really good education and learned my "fuck the man" attitude there. A lot of the suburbs in that part of MA are pretty good but they were more "college prep" oriented which wasn't good if you were a kid interested in something different. Also some towns, like Concord MA, have very good private schools so kids who are trying to go to "best" schools will be in the local private school instead of the local public (concord Carlisle, a very good school) if their parents have $$.

So, I know it's a little early maybe to see what path your kids will want to take, but consider that a lot of the very good suburban schools are geared towards getting your kid into a really good college. Which is great, but may not be the end-all be-all depending on your kid. I know some super creative and interesting people who went to tiny high schools in Vermont (for example) which have less stellar reputations (not bad, just not exceptional) and they are more interesting human beings than some of my brainier friends who went to top public schools and top colleges (I went to Hampshire, fwiw).

One of the things that the top public schools do is track kids and their peers into top colleges and etc. You make connections. These help you later in life. So there's not really one answer. I'd want my kids to be respected as individuals (I wasn't) and to be encouraged to develop and nurture their own talents (I wasn't) and to be able to get individualized attention that was both scholarly and extracurricular (no and no). So it's challenging. You may find that the places that are the best for middle schoolers don't wind up being the best for the high schoolers your kids wind up being.
posted by jessamyn at 2:30 PM on April 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

Belmont, MA, right next to Cambridge. Rich town inhabited by lots of elite academics (Harvard, MIT, etc.). My kids go/went there. Their special ed program is especially fantastic.
posted by primate moon at 2:44 PM on April 18, 2015

City Honors in Buffalo, NY is consistently ranked as one of the best schools in the country. It's public, goes 5th-12th grades, and requires an entrance exam for admission, though you don't have to live in Buffalo to take the exam. And the cost of living in Buffalo is pretty low. A friend moved from Long Island to Buffalo in part with the hope that her daughter will be able to test in to City Honors.
posted by kat518 at 3:17 PM on April 18, 2015

I dunno about college towns. I grew up in a college town and the public schools were pretty bad. A lot of parents who taught at the college sent their kids to private school or lived in a different town.

Also this may be obvious but a lot of the individual schools mentioned upthread are highly selective. They are fantastic schools, but if your kids can't score in the top 10% or so on standardized tests, they're not getting into Hunter or TJ, and even if they do score well admission is still very much a crapshoot. It would really suck to move across the country for a great public school and then have your kids not get admitted to it.
posted by phoenixy at 3:26 PM on April 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have only skimmed previous answers, but I will agree with the suggestions to look for a college town and that parental involvement matters more than the school per se. I will add that I have seen studies that suggest that parental/community involvement (not just at the household level, but the community level) matters more than average annual expenditure per pupil.

What has been your best public school for your children? What makes it so great?

I was a military wife and my sons went to a few different schools in 4 different states before I pulled them out to homeschool. I ended up being "director of community life" for a voluntary health and welfare organization trying to make the transition to 503(c) charity. So I used to read a lot about this type subject, as well as give advice to other parents.

My experience with a college town was in Manhattan, Kansas. It was the best school either of my sons ever attended, even though it was quite poor. They had a lot of kids who qualified for free lunches and other intervention. For us, that was a feature, not a bug, because it meant my oldest son got not only a great school but good intervention in special ed. My sons are both twice exceptional -- gifted with some learning disabilities -- and this was a real godsend for us.

The other thing is that it was a neighborhood school. IIRC, the definition of a neighborhood school is one where more than 90% of the kids are within walking distance of the school and there is very little bussing. This helps promote parental and community involvement with the school, which I saw a lot of and engaged in plenty myself.

I will also suggest that you can look at state laws to help you make your decision. We also had some positive experiences in Washington state and part of that was that when we moved to a different rental, I was able to keep my sons in the same school that they preferred. You have some leeway as to where you choose to send your kids in Washington state, or did when we lived there close to 2 decades ago. We were in Richland, Washington, another small town. It is not a college town but there is a nuclear plant there and a lot of their employees had PhDs and what not. Not all schools there were equally good and I am not recommending Richland per se. I am trying to give you an idea of some of the characteristics of types of places likely to provide positive experiences and to suggest that "rich suburb" is hardly your only option.

In a nutshell, I would look for:

1) A small town (under 50k populatin)
2) with either a large university or some other facility that provides a strongly intellectual atmosphere
3) then check for a neighborhood school in that town
4) then tour the school with my kids and see if they like it. No? Then pass on it. (This is why I kept my kids in their old school in Washington -- we toured the school they were supposed to go to, they did not like it. I respected their preference.)

I will also suggest that since you sound like you have a lot of flexibility, you might also consider homeschooling. People often envision that as being a lot more burdensome than it really is. One-on-one instruction is far more intense than instruction in a classroom where you are one of 20 to 40 kids and the teacher spends a lot of their time just trying to keep order. So, no, you do not need to give your kids 8 hours a day of instruction if you keep them home. At most, you need to give them 3 hours per day, plus access to resources.
posted by Michele in California at 3:52 PM on April 18, 2015

I went to go to a highly ranked school in Montgomery County. I did well in terms of grades and went to state University and I have a high paying fun job now. Both of my parents were scientists and put an emphasis on education. That said, I hated school and thought it was incredibly boring and a huge waste of time. I was pretty self motivated and I am pretty sure I would be better educated and like learning more if my parents just dropped me off at the library every day. I can't believe that these schools are supposedly the good schools. And I can't imagine what the bad ones might be like...

The pros of going to a school like that is that if you are a kid who just goes with the flow and does what everyone is doing (many kids) you'll be applying and going to colleges like everyone else. It's just the expected thing that everyone else is doing. Also, it's generally unacceptable to not be getting decent grades, so there's some peer pressure to perform well enough. At some point parental pressure loses it's power and only peer pressure might actually work. This puts you on track to be accepted at good universities.

The cons are the general attitude by the kids is that you should do well but not really try. That is, to be cool, which I think becomes pretty important for most kids, you should get A's but not really put in any effort and certainly not be actually school smart. I learned how to play the game, which I guess is important, but ugh. Also, some 16 year old kids would drive in with the new fancy convertibles their parents got them. This didn't bother me, but I definitely remember some of my other friends being jealous and acting out because of it.

Overall, in terms of actual education, I was unimpressed. I'm not sure what these schools might be doing that the ones in say Louisiana aren't. I've attended and have seen other far superior alternatives, but unfortunately, not in the USA. I'd guess these highly ranked schools do "better" because of the community pressure and emphasis on education more than anything the school itself is doing.
posted by uncreative at 7:20 PM on April 18, 2015

This is written from thousands of miles away from America but:

My experience from school is that the parents involvement mattered much more than the quality of the school itself, which is why the children of professors tended to do well in my relatively affluent public school.

Also, it was just a given that we were going to university (both parents and peers pressure)

So yeah, in a nutshell, get involved in your kids education (which it seems you already are)
posted by Kwadeng at 2:37 AM on April 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

As you're getting answers about the amazing college towns in the boston area I'm putting in a plug for Lexington. We have an amazing school district, Nobel Laureates and MIT and Harvard people. We also have a bike path. Our schools are great and we have a small little downtown with a very connected community. Unlike newton and belmont it's not a big money town. Out kids may drive their own cars but they all have jobs.
posted by kinetic at 4:09 AM on April 19, 2015

Since I want mine to have the best education possible, they're not IN a school, public or otherwise.
posted by stormyteal at 2:56 PM on April 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Another vote for the Boston suburbs: Brookline, Newton, Belmont, Wellesley, Lexington, Cambridge, Needham, Acton-Boxborough, etc. I went to Boston Latin and it was great, but it is an exam school and the rest of the Boston Public School system is not so great (or at least it wasn't when I was in school), so I wouldn't recommend Boston proper. (Maybe the BPS system is better now with some of the newer charter schools—I'm not sure.)
posted by désoeuvrée at 3:14 PM on April 19, 2015

So, I know it's a little early maybe to see what path your kids will want to take, but consider that a lot of the very good suburban schools are geared towards getting your kid into a really good college. Which is great, but may not be the end-all be-all depending on your kid.

Really important point here. My family lived, and continues to live, in a couple of the school districts mentioned here. Some family members have found the college admissions orientation really pressurizing. That, and the focus on outward success that often seems to dominate in those kinds of areas.

I have friends and other family members to whom college was important, who went to schools in less prestigious areas. Their perception was that the college advising-- and connections between high school admissions advisers and college--was somewhat lacking. Having parents who can work their way around this helps a lot.
posted by BibiRose at 6:34 AM on March 24, 2016

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