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10 Best Towns for Families: 2012

Outstanding schools, affordable housing, plenty of green space and a giving spirit. These communities have it all, making them perfect places to call home.

By Seema Nayyar

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Bay Village, Ohio
Illustration by Mark Todd
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Bay Village, Ohio

Population: 15,363
Median Income: $80,667
Median Home Price: $187,750
Households with Kids: 35%
Student/Teacher Ratio: 16:1
Great Schools Rating: 10

No matter what event Stacey and Phil Nye are attending—a local fundraiser, a concert in the park, bowling night—the outing often turns into a class reunion of sorts. "We're third-generation Bay Villagers, and a lot of the people we graduated with came back after college to raise a family, just like we did," says Phil, 48, who owns a plastics factory. People are drawn to this Cleveland suburb's idyllic setting—white picket fences, tree-lined streets and a 5-mile wooded shoreline on Lake Erie—as well as a school district that consistently ranks among the top 5% in the state. With small class sizes and caring teachers, students reap the benefits. That includes the Nyes' sons, Kevin, 22, Jeff, 20, and P.J., 17, who have also embraced the community's can-do spirit. When Kevin wanted to start a lacrosse team in eighth grade and his school didn't have the funds, he recruited friends, a coach and sponsors to donate $10,000. Today there's not only a high school varsity squad and junior varsity crew but a girls' team too. "People are open to possibilities here," says Stacey, 47, who runs a catering company. "They'll rally behind what's needed and get the job done."

Good Deeds: Arts education is a group effort here. BAYarts, the community cultural center, is supported by $70,000 in annual contributions from residents, and volunteers and local businesses pitch in to manage its galleries and gardens.

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Vail, Arizona

Population: 11,502
Median Income: $79,599
Median Home Price: $173,300
Households with Kids: 36%
Student/Teacher Ratio: 17:1
Great Schools Rating: 10

Kiki Ngo, 47, a stay-at-home mom, left Southern California 18 years ago when her husband, Doan, a 48-year-old electrical engineer, was transferred to Tucson. Looking for an affordable place to raise their kids, they hit the jackpot in nearby Vail. For the price of a one-bedroom California condo they bought a four-bedroom home on a quarter acre in the foothills of the Rincon Mountains. That means plenty of space for their six children, who range in age from 7 to 21. The kids have also thrived in Vail's innovative schools, which rate among the top in the state. All of the Ngos' younger children are in advanced math programs, and the two oldest boys, Vinh and Nam, studied college calculus in their freshman year of high school and achieved perfect scores on their AP calculus tests. Schools are such a large and important part of this town that the district holds an annual event at the county fairgrounds in February to showcase student science projects, art, and music and dance performances. "This place is growing fast, but we still have a close-knit community of teachers, administrators and parents," says Kiki. "We all take pride in our kids, and we want the very best for them."

Good Deeds: For national Make a Difference Day last October, 800 volunteers turned out to spruce up the town's schools, pouring concrete for new sidewalks, creating gravel fitness trails and re-landscaping grass courtyards with desert plants.

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Lake Oswego, Oregon

Population: 36,396
Median Income: $83,397
Median Home Price: $361,317
Households with Kids: 30%
Student/Teacher Ratio: 22:1
Great Schools Rating: 10

Beth Taylor, 53, rarely travels far from this scenic Portland suburb for family vacations. She and husband Mitch, a 52-year-old tech firm executive, along with kids Grant, 18, and Margaret, 9, have hiked in the Cascades, skied at Mount Hood and floated down the McKenzie River—all just a two- or three-hour drive away. The Taylors can also get their nature fix by walking out the front door, since their home borders a 645-acre forest known as Tryon Creek State Park. "When you're on the trails, it's easy to forget that you live anywhere near a city," says Beth. But what she appreciates most about Lake Oswego is its caring citizens. To make up for school budget cuts, parents raised more than $2 million last year to hire teachers and keep classes small. And when Grant was hurt during a football game last October, two neighborhood doctors met Beth and Mitch in the ER for moral support and stayed with them through the night; when Grant returned home, the family's voicemail and e-mail boxes were filled with hundreds of good wishes and their fridge had been stocked with food. "Not unusual at all," says Beth. "People here go all out to support each other."

Good Deeds: Every year students at Lake Oswego High spend one of their days off from school doing volunteer work, from cleaning the local library to mucking out stalls at a horse stable for disabled youth. In April 700 kids stepped up; next year's goal is for all 1,200 to take part.

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Fishers, Indiana

Population: 78,581
Median Income: $94,137
Median Home Price: $185,699
Households with Kids: 47%
Student/Teacher Ratio: 25:1
Great Schools Rating: 9

Jocelyn Vare, 42, will tell you there's no shortage of fun family activities in this booming Indianapolis suburb—something she truly appreciates as a single mom to Nick, 17, and Maddie, 15. The threesome enjoy hot air balloon rides, symphony concerts in the park and visits to Conner Prairie, an interactive history museum where visitors can learn about the Lenape Indians and the fur trade or help with morning chores, pioneer-era style. But their favorite event is the Renaissance Faire, which helps raise money for a student exchange program with Fishers' sister city, Billericay, England. "Nick was one of four teens selected last summer, and the experience changed his life," says Jocelyn, who owns an ad agency. The schools, she adds, know how to nurture young talent. A music teacher who watched Maddie play the drums in sixth grade suggested she pursue math, since he'd noticed over the years that kids who play percussion instruments well are also good with numbers. Maddie soon leaped two grade levels ahead, and the freshman is now taking junior-level algebra courses. "Our kids are encouraged and challenged to excel," says Jocelyn. "There are so many amazing opportunities for them here."

Good Deeds: When beloved police officer Leslie Hulse lost her battle with breast cancer in 2009, the community launched an annual basketball competition that raises money for a memorial fund. The goal: award two $1,500 scholarships yearly to high school students interested in law enforcement or social work.

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Ballwin, Missouri

Population: 30,746
Median Income: $82,758
Median Home Price: $192,000
Households with Kids: 36%
Student/Teacher Ratio: 16:1
Great Schools Rating: 9

Laura Ayers, 52, wasn't surprised when her daughter Kathryn, 23, decided to return to this St. Louis suburb after college last year and buy a house just a few blocks away. "This is an incredible community with exceptional schools, natural beauty and plenty of great things to do," she says. "Just about everyone I know has lived or studied elsewhere, but they always come back to Ballwin to raise children." Laura, an attorney, and husband Brock, 51, a financial planner, along with kids Caroline, 20, Amelia, 18, and Sarah, 13, savor the simple pleasures here, like spotting deer in the backyard, fishing for trout at a local park or taking fitness classes at The Pointe, a 12-acre recreation complex. The Ayerses also appreciate how quick residents are to lend a helping hand. Teachers, for example, routinely ask students to stay after class for some extra one-on-one instruction. As part of the annual April Showers Girl Scouts charity event, Amelia and Sarah go door to door dropping off plastic bags for donations of personal care items for families in need. "People will stop us at the grocery store asking if they can do more, and hand you what they just bought for themselves," says Laura. "The generosity of spirit is astounding."

Good Deeds: It takes a village to stage the summertime Ballwin Days festival. A 65-member volunteer committee coordinates everything from vendors to children's activities to a 5K run, as well as a contest to raise funds for a local children's hospital.

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Louisville, Colorado

Population: 18,181
Median Income: $85,979
Median Home Price: $349,500
Households with Kids: 39%
Student/Teacher Ratio: 17:1
Great Schools Rating: 9

Yes, the views of the Rocky Mountains are downright spectacular. But for Kathy Pollicita, 52, a retirement center administrator, the real beauty of Louisville, located some 20 miles outside Denver, is the sense of camaraderie. Her neighbors all belong to a book club, wine club or other group. Kids gather at the 57,000-square-foot rec center, where her son David, 17, shoots hoops and daughter Lexi, 14, swims. And just about everyone shows up for the summer street fair, when the town throws itself a huge block party with music and games on Friday nights. "Teens even hang out with their parents, which is pretty neat," says Kathy. She and husband Jim, 63, an education consultant, also appreciate the robust school system, where students regularly score above average on ACT and SAT exams. Voters have opened their pocketbooks to offer support, approving a property tax hike in 2010 that generated $22 million to restore state cuts and keep teacher salaries competitive. Says Jim: "We've got great weather, terrific schools and wholesome, inspiring surroundings—it would be tough not to be happy here."

Good Deeds: For the past three years, Louisville Middle School has hosted a Winter Slam basketball game where eighth-graders square off against teachers, policemen and firefighters. The admission charge per person? One donated toy, which the students later wrap up and give to underprivileged kids.

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Fort Mill, South Carolina

Population: 12,049
Median Income: $64,213
Median Home Price: $186,250
Households with Kids: 41%
Student/Teacher Ratio: 18:1
Great Schools Rating: 10

When Mississippians Darryl and Sally Harvey moved here 17 years ago, they wanted a place with stellar schools and small-town charm. They haven't been disappointed. Located some 20 miles outside Charlotte, Fort Mill is a place where random acts of kindness are the norm. Take the time Darryl, 48, an IT manager, got stuck in a freak snowstorm. "Before I could call for help, two guys in a pickup came by and pulled me out," he says. "They were driving around assisting anyone who needed it." The school district remains first-rate despite tripling in size over the past decade, with "Excellent" ratings from the state. The Harveys' son Matthew, 19, now a Harvard freshman, was the first African American valedictorian in the district; daughter Hannah, 15, is a member of the Future Business Leaders of America. When she's not hitting the books herself, Sally, 45, who's studying family and consumer sciences at Winthrop University, enjoys events like the local strawberry festival. "Whether we're relaxing on weekends or picking veggies from our garden and taking them to neighbors, Fort Mill is perfect," she says.

Good Deeds: The police department's Do the Right Thing program awards prizes to students for making charitable choices. Among the winners: a high school freshman who raised $6,500 for Japan's quake survivors and an eighth-grader who designed pink socks to boost breast cancer awareness.

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Longmeadow, Massachusetts

Population: 15,636
Median Income: $95,400
Median Home Price: $302,500
Households with Kids: 40%
Student/Teacher Ratio: 13:1
Great Schools Rating: 9

When her neighborhood lost power after a fierce storm last year, Mary Cieplik knew what to do. She hooked up her generator, invited about 20 neighbors over and had a dinner party. "Everybody brought whatever they had and we cooked up a great meal," says Mary, 43, an assistant principal. "People look out for others when they're in need, even if you don't know them. Everyone feels connected." Residents are also in touch with nature. Nearly a third of the town is made up of parks and preserves, and Mary, her husband, Todd, a 43-year-old sales rep, and kids Cassie, 15, Alex, 13, and Nate, 11, make a point of disconnecting from their wired lives at least once a week to take long walks in the woods. The children are thriving academically, thanks to a school district that also boasts impressive sports and arts programs. The Ciepliks rarely miss the annual concert at Symphony Hall in nearby Springfield, where Longmeadow's 4th- to 12th-graders sing in the choir. "My kids have nicknamed this place 'The Bubble,'" says Mary. "I call it a safe haven."

Good Deeds: The local MOMS Club (Moms Offering Moms Support) chapter stays busy with projects from donating backpacks filled with school supplies to raising money for the library so it can provide patrons with free passes to children's museums.

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Zachary, Louisiana

Population: 15,329
Median Income: $65,749
Median Home Price: $180,000
Households with Kids: 41%
Student/Teacher Ratio: 21:1
Great Schools Rating: 9

Jennifer and Nick Carr were high school sweethearts who didn't plan on staying in this Baton Rouge suburb when they married in 1996. Then came the kids—Ryleigh, 14, Peyton, 12, and Eli, 9—and they realized that Zachary was too good to give up. "The schools were wonderful when I attended, but they're simply amazing now," says Jennifer, 39, a hairstylist. The district has been rated the best in Louisiana for the last seven years and was the only one to receive an A rating from the state in 2011. Jennifer and Nick, 38, a pipeline operator, give much of the credit to dedicated teachers who tailor instruction to each student's needs. And when Peyton required reading and math intervention in third grade, for example, her school paid for summer tutoring. And the Carrs love Zachary's family-friendly lifestyle. They're regulars at the annual Christmas parade (Jen's parents are Santa and Mrs. Claus) and at Zfest, a four-day music and arts celebration in March. "Whether we're blueberry picking, having crawfish boils or going to Friday night football games," says Jennifer, "I'm just so thankful we're here."

Good Deeds: The Zachary Men's Club, which owns 11 acres of property in town, decided to put its land to better use three years ago by planting a community garden that provides fresh vegetables to the town's senior citizens, military families and the local food bank.

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Oak Park, Illinois

Population: 52,014
Median Income: $77,610
Median Home Price: $276,500
Households with Kids: 33%
Student/Teacher Ratio: 17:1
Great Schools Rating: 8

Diane and Chris Fascione have a long list of things they love about this leafy Chicago suburb: top-notch schools, ample green space, the hundreds of block parties held every summer. But what they cherish most are its diversity and progressive spirit. The couple's two adopted sons, Nick, 17, and Andrew, 15, are part African American, Mexican and Irish—and the Fasciones couldn't feel more at home. "We're truly integrated, with different ethnic groups and religions as well as mixed families like ours," says Diane, 54, a substitute teacher. "It's a kind of utopia." Oak Park also blends big-city amenities with village charm. It boasts the largest concentration of Prairie-style structures designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as dozens of art galleries, studios, and dance and theater companies. "We've got the culture and feel of a college town, but without the college," jokes Chris, 51, an actor and entertainer. And it's a place where people look out for one another. Nick and Andrew, for example, shovel snow for an elderly woman who lives across the street, and Chris takes her to the grocery store, pharmacy or bank. "If someone has an illness in the family or any other kind of hardship, neighbors sign up to provide home-cooked meals for them," says Diane. "This is a community with a conscience."

Good Deeds: Every day is Earth Day at the town's elementary schools, where students sort waste for recycling and composting. They also plant gardens and fruit trees, and every fall one school hosts a dinner using produce the kids have harvested themselves.

How We Chose the Cities

With the help of Onboard Informatics, a New York City research firm that provides real estate, demographic and other data, Family Circle initially assembled a list of 3,335 cities and towns with populations between 11,000 and 150,000. From that list, some 1,300 localities having a high concentration of households with median incomes between $55,000 and $96,000 were selected. We then assessed which places best met our family-friendly criteria—including affordable homes, quality schools, access to health care, green space, low crime rate and financial stability—and ranked them from top to bottom. Family Circle selected the 10 winners from among the highest-rated towns.

Making the Grade

The Great Schools rating listed at the top for each town is based on the performance on standardized tests by students at local elementary, middle and high schools relative to students at other schools in the state, using a scale from 1 to 10. A rating of 10 means that overall test scores are as good as, or better than, 90% of scores elsewhere. The ratings are provided by GreatSchools.org, a nonprofit website with a mission to improve education by inspiring parents to get involved. To find out how your child's school is doing, go to the site and enter your school's name and state for test results according to grade, stats on student/teacher ratios and diversity, and parent reviews.

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