6. Madison, WI
Average home cost: $126,400
Number of parks: 200
- Boasts one of the highest numbers of pediatricians per capita of any city surveyed
- Has strict state childcare mandates, requiring that one employee watch no more than four children 18 months and younger
- Offers one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country-at just under 2%
- Is home to the Madison Children's Museum, where kids can photograph their shadows
- Spent $1.5 million improving the city's public playground equipment, including renovations on a slide modeled after the fairy tale "The Old Woman in the Shoe"
City highlight: Five years ago, public school officials in Madison set out to tackle the gap in reading comprehension scores between white and minority students. "We didn't have a common approach to reading in our elementary schools," says Art Rainwater, superintendent of the Madison School District. "Schools or even teachers could do what they wanted."
Rainwater quickly assembled a task force of teachers and reading specialists to study the latest research on the best way to teach reading. The result: the Balanced Literacy program, which outlines the most effective methods, including phonics. Teachers attended a weeklong summer session to become familiar with the program. "Once we implemented Balanced Literacy, test scores began to rise," says Rainwater. For instance, the percentage of third-graders proficient or advanced in the state's reading comprehension test rose from 70% in 1998 to 80% in 2000 -- with the biggest gains among minority students. "And we think we can do better still," adds Rainwater.