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Buying a Home: The 10 Best Cities for Families

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Geography is not quite destiny when it comes to raising kids, but there's no question that it does influence how easy or difficult it is to provide our children with a good education, excellent doctors, fresh air, and cultural enrichment. Child surveyed over 100 cities, looking at everything from pediatric health centers to housing costs, air quality to student-teacher ratios. Here, our results: the top spots for families to call home.

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Miguel S. Salmeron

Miguel S. Salmeron

Population: 499,775
Average home cost*: $161,900
Number of parks: 301

  • Has excellent air quality, without a single day in 1999 exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency's ozone limits
  • Boasts more pediatricians per capita than most American cities
  • Offers many recreational opportunities for families, including hiking and biking in nearby mountain parks, plus Six Flags Elitch Gardens (the only amusement park in the downtown of any U.S. city)
  • Issues every fifth-grader a free pass for 75 days of skiing

City highlight: More than 100 years ago, the Denver Public Library opened one of the nation's first children's departments. Today, the children's library -- recently redesigned by renowned architect Michael Graves -- sparks imaginations with its unique features: a tentlike Children's Pavilion where magicians and puppeteers perform free on the weekends, benches built into mazelike bookshelves for reading a story, and brass trumpets that call attention to media stations. Half of Denver grade-schoolers participate in the Children's Summer of Reading program. The initiative contributed to the nearly 4 million children's books checked out of the library last year -- an average of 64 books for each cardholder age 12 or under.

Population: 433,461 (Virginia Beach); 225,875 (Norfolk); 79,138 (Newport News)
Average home cost: $122,600
Number of parks: 235

  • Offers an excellent school system -- the pupil-teacher ratio is 14 to 1 in Newport News
  • Has a good safety record; Virginia Beach's violent crime rate is one of the lowest of any city with a population greater than 210,000
  • Schedules family-fun events like fishing lessons at the 8,000-plus-acre Newport News Park, one of the largest municipal parks east of the Mississippi River
  • Will soon add 3.2 million cubic yards of sand to Virginia Beach, tripling its width

City highlight: With 800,000 gallons of floor-to-ceiling aquariums and 300 hands-on exhibits, like an interactive wave machine, the Virginia Marine Science Museum in Virginia Beach speaks to children's love of sea adventure. "By coming here, kids see what's underneath the waves and realize it's a wild world out there," says Nancy Walsh, the museum's director of education. Hundreds of touch tanks, IMAX films on sea life, an outdoor aviary, 10 acres of marsh habitat, a nature trail, and nominally priced boat excursions for dolphin or whale watching round out this museum experience.

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Miguel S. Salmeron

Population: 353,395 (Minneapolis); 256,213 (St. Paul)
Average home cost: $149,300
Number of parks: 330

  • Maintains excellent air quality -- the ozone didn't exceed EPA limits anytime in 1999
  • Boasts more teachers (in St. Paul) certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards than most other districts in the nation
  • Constructed 52 miles of biking and walking paths -- called the Grand Rounds Scenic Byway -- that connect the Minneapolis lakes
  • Is loaded with educational family activities, including a simulated walk through a dinosaur's stomach at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul

City highlight: Minneapolis squeezes in more theater seats per capita than any other city in the country besides the Big Apple. And adults aren't the only ones filling in the rows. Families flock to the 35-year-old Children's Theatre Company (CTC), nationally renowned for its lavish, high-quality productions like The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and Pippi Longstocking, which is currently on stage.

The 17-member acting company won an Outstanding Achievement Award last fall from the National Theater Conference -- the first time the award went to a children's theater. "We make sure never to sacrifice anything just because it's for children," says spokesperson Linda Jacobs.

To that end, CTC runs a theater arts training program, in which 550 8- to 18-year-olds a year study movement, acting, and singing, culminating in theater productions. CTC also began "Neighborhood Bridges" in four Minneapolis elementary schools. For two hours a week during the school year, its actor-educators lead children in writing exercises and a mini-play on the CTC stage. "Theater arts can build self-esteem, confidence, and conflict resolution," Jacobs explains. "These are things children can use no matter what they do in the future."

Population: 369,253
Average home cost: $126,400
Number of parks: 94

  • Offers the nation's largest magnet-school program, with 78 fields of study, including the newly added mechanical engineering, commercial art, and biomedicine
  • Raised the scores on a second-grade standardized reading test by 13 points from 1999 to 2000
  • Reduced crime by 40% since 1993, thanks largely to increased cooperation with the community and expanded after-school programs for kids
  • Is jam-packed with places to visit on family outings, like the Miami Museum of Science & Space Transit Planetarium (kids 6 and under take a trip around the solar system during the Rusty Rocket space show) and the Miami Metrozoo (which offers a behind-the-scenes tour)

City highlight: Miami is synonymous with beaches, so it's not surprising that it boasts one of the splashiest in the country for families -- Crandon Beach Park. Its offshore sandbar aids young swimmers by taking the edge off incoming surf. Kids love playing in the gentle water, building sandcastles, and going to the adjacent amusement center, with its newly restored 1949 carousel, free outdoor roller rink, and splash fountain.

Little nature lovers can walk or bike to the 200-acre Crandon Park Gardens, complete with a Tropical Jungle Hayride that carries visitors into dense vegetation. Walking trails lead to canoe-filled lakes and local wildlife. And during nature programs, children can get up close to creatures as diverse as seahorses, reptiles, and birds while learning about their environments.

Families can expand on their wildlife experience with a trip to nearby Parrot Jungle Island, a world-famous a bird sanctuary. It features a petting zoo where parrots will land on your little one's shoulder, providing a perfect photo opportunity.

Population: 180,308
Average home cost: $129,200
Number of parks: 92

  • Offers an extensive magnet-school program, including an economics curriculum for elementary school students
  • Will open 36 new ball fields by 2002
  • Boasts a low unemployment rate and high predicted job growth
  • Has great spots for family excursions, from the Disney theme parks (an Aladdin magic carpet ride opens at the Magic Kingdom this month) to the Orlando Science Center (kids can climb a tree and turn oranges into juice)

City highlight: Most water parks make waves with thrill rides-perfect for teens, but inappropriate for toddlers. Water Mania, however, puts as much emphasis on family as on flumes, offering lifeguard-supervised attractions and free life vests for young children. A big hit: the Rain Train, a life-size locomotive with water sprays in its stack, wheels, and slides. Kids also love hanging out on the Pirate Ship, featuring rope ladders, water guns, and slides, or playing on tricycles that shoot water.

There's also lots to do as a family. A gang can float down Cruisin' Creek, an 850-foot tropical river filled with foam animals, or enjoy the park's 3 acres of picnic area, with a playground and a basketball court.

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Chris Cole

Chris Cole

Population: 210,674
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.

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Dwight Elefsen

Dwight Elefsen

Population: 300,650
Average home cost: $275,000
Number of parks: 42

  • Offers very good air quality, with only one day that the ozone exceeded EPA limits in 1999 (one city in smog-prone California had high levels on 88 days)
  • Is located a few miles from Children's Hospital of Orange County, ranked 11th in a Child survey of 178 pediatric centers
  • Sports a new theme park, Disney's California Adventure, complete with boardwalk-type rides and an 8-acre recreation area among the redwoods

City highlight: Big cities usually have big crime rates -- well above the Federal Bureau of Investigation's national average. But with Anaheim's crime rate 20% below that of cities of similar size, the streets haven't been as safe in 30 years. The key: "Police officers have switched their focus from a quick fix to a long-term solution," says Sergeant Rick Martinez, a public information officer. For instance, when there is a rash of juvenile crimes, officers call on the Police Athletic League and school officials to help kids find better ways to spend their time. "An officer used to return to the same neighborhood daily for the same reason," says Martinez. "Now, although it takes more creativity and time, the problem is often fixed for good."

Population: 214,470
Average home cost: $111,000
Number of parks: 136

  • Has one of the highest rates of pediatricians per capita of any city in our survey
  • Spends a great deal of money on education -- more than $9,000 per student
  • Has decreased crime about 30% in the last six years
  • Boasts the Strong Museum (kids can view the world's largest doll collection) and the George Eastman House and International Museum of Photography and Film (the Discovery Room offers hands-on exhibits for kids)

City highlight: Chili, NY, a small suburban town abutting Rochester, started the first American youth soccer league more than 100 years ago, launching a coed sports pastime that now defines the region. Rochester has more soccer-playing youth per capita than any other city in America, with up to 900 8- to 14-year-old kids a year participating in winter indoor and summer outdoor leagues. "There are some real soccer fanatics here," says Dick Allen, manager of athletics and aquatics in Rochester's Bureau of Parks and Recreation. "The kids draw quite a crowd."

Sponsored by Quad A (a community foundation), YMCAs, churches, and more, the teams play on dozens of area fields and gymnasiums -- the largest parks and recreation system in the state after New York City. Now the city plans to construct even more soccer fields to accommodate the growing league.

Population: 555,249
Average home cost: $159,600
Number of parks: 215

  • Has the highest number of pediatricians per capita of any city in our survey
  • Improved the ratio of students to computers from 63 to 1 in 1996 to 6 to 1 currently
  • Boasts one of the strictest state childcare mandates in the country -- requiring that one employee care for no more than three children 9 months and younger and four children 9 to 27 months
  • Sponsors the Duckling Tour, which lets children waddle, flap, and quack their way through Beacon Hill (stopping for treasure hunts at historic sites), across the Public Garden with its Make Way for Ducklings statues, and down to the Swan Boats, which cruise around the lagoon
  • Houses the Museum of Science, where visitors can see their body spread over 100 mirrors in the new light house exhibit

City highlight: Just over a decade ago, pediatricians at Boston Medical Center thought they might be able to help kids read better -- not just feel better. "Since literacy is the passport to success, the doctors decided that they should stop handing out lollipops during each visit and start handing out books," says Sean Palfrey, M.D., president-elect of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

With community donations, the doctors and early childhood educators launched Reach Out and Read. Doctors use the opportunity to educate parents about their child's development. "For instance, we tell parents, 'At this stage, your child should be able to identify what's in the pictures in a particular book,'" says Dr. Palfrey.

Today, more than half of Boston's pediatricians participate in the program, which has spread to dozens of other cities. It's also gained scientific acclaim: A recent study shows that it encourages reading at home and helps boost language skills.

Population: 1,238,974
Average home cost: $145,700
Number of parks: 200

  • Accommodates working parents by opening all of its 196 elementary and middle schools from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. for enrichment classes and recreational activities, the first citywide extended school day in the country
  • Is home to Children's Hospital and Health Center, San Diego, which ranked seventh in Child's evaluation of 178 pediatric centers
  • Boasts a fabulous climate, with more than 250 sunny days every year
  • Has great beaches, such as La Jolla Shores, which offers easy surf

City highlight: Vasco N??ez de Balboa might have been the first European guy to glimpse the Pacific, but Balboa Park -- the San Diego park named for the Spanish conquistador -- introduces many a Southern California kid to green, not blue. "Since San Diego's basically desert, there isn't much green except in the parks," observes Michael Behan, deputy parks and recreation director for the City of San Diego. "Our parks provide an abundance of lushness for families." Six thousand, five hundred acres of it, to be specific.

Balboa Park, the oldest park in San Diego, is the crown jewel. Its 1,200 acres house 15 museums (including the Children's Discovery Center, tailor-made for fledgling anthropologists, and the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, where the largest permanent toy train display in the U.S. is located), the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater (where marionettes clatter daily), and the world-famous San Diego Zoo. There, 4,000 exotic animals -- koalas, condors, and Komodo dragons among them -- cavort amid the palms and Spanish Colonial Revival-style and Art Deco buildings. The park, a world unto itself, is an oasis among the mesas.

A kid-scale "urban forest," as Behan dubs San Diego's parks -- more like an urban terrarium -- is the five-year-old Children's Park and Museum, situated smack dab in the heart of downtown San Diego. Where Balboa Park is a planet, the Children's Park is a haven, its grassy knolls and 200-foot water sculpture serving as a gathering place for center-city families and an apt reminder that San Diegans wear their hearts on their greens, both big and small.

Thanks to a host of online sites, you can discover little publicized facts about your town -- or somewhere that you're thinking of moving. Check these out to see if you should keep your address.

Schools: For the student-teacher ratio at any U.S. public school, search the National Center for Education Statistics' Web site at www.nces.ed.gov/nceskids/school. Get the scoop on schools that have received the U.S. Department of Education's Blue Ribbon Schools Award at www.ed.gov/offices/OERI/BlueRibbonSchools.

Childcare: Get the mandated child-to-staff ratios for your state from the National Child Care Information Center's site at www.nccic.org/statepro.html.

Clean air: Download air quality statistics by city from the Environmental Protection Agency at www.epa.gov/airtrends.

Crime: Search crime stats for your city at www.fbi.gov/ucr/99cius.htm, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's site.

Playmates: Look up the U.S. Census's ranking of 245 metro areas by the percentage of children under 5 at www.census.gov/Press-Release/metro07.prn.

Go to www.bestplaces.net to see how your city compares to others in 30 categories, including crime, schools, and the job market.

The following organizations provided data for this story: The American Medical Association in Chicago; the National Association of Children's Hospitals and Related Institutions in Alexandria,VA; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta; the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, DC; the United States Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC; the National Child Care Information Center in Vienna, VA; the National Resources Defense Council in New York City; the U.S. Census Bureau in Washington, DC; the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight in Washington, DC; and the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, DC.

When you choose a city to raise your family, you don't want it just to have good schools or lots of parks -- but the best hospitals, safe neighborhoods, clean air, and quality child care too. In other words, you want it all. Child magazine took the following 18 criteria into account when evaluating 100 of the nation's most populous cities. The data came from U.S. government agencies and independent associations. We crunched the numbers based on a complex formula -- weighing some criteria such as air quality more heavily than others like the average commute time.

  • Number of pediatricians per capita
  • Proximity to a children's hospital
  • Immunization rates
  • Infant mortality rate
  • Air quality
  • Water quality
  • School spending
  • Pupil-Teacher Ratio
  • Availability of parks/green space
  • Nearby recreational opportunities
  • Average commute time
  • Number of sunny days
  • Average cost of a 3-bedroom home
  • Unemployment rate
  • Future job growth
  • Crime rate
  • Percentage of children under 5
  • Mandated minimum child care ratios

See how all the cities fared in our evaluation:

1. Denver, CO
2. Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA
3. Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN
4. Miami, FL
5. Orlando, FL
6. Madison, WI
7. (tie) Anaheim, CA
7. (tie) Rochester, NY
9. Boston, MA
10. San Diego, CA
11. San Jose, CA
12. Seattle, WA
13. Little Rock, AR
14. Des Moines, IA
15. Omaha, NE
16. Salt Lake City, UT
17. Anchorage, AK
18. Portland, OR
19. St. Petersburg, FL
20. Lincoln, NE
21. Jacksonville, FL
22. Phoenix, AZ
23. Tampa, FL
24. Albuquerque, NM
25. Las Vegas, NV
26. Honolulu, HI
27. Austin, TX
28. Amarillo, TX
29. New York City, NY
30. Pittsburgh, PA
31. San Antonio, TX
32. Worchester, MA
33. Milwaukee, WI
34. Detroit, MI
35. El Paso, TX
36. Indianapolis, IN
37. Chicago, IL
38. Atlanta, GA
39. Los Angeles, CA
40. Corpus Christi, TX
41. Cincinnati, OH
42. Buffalo, NY
43. Colorado Springs, CO
44. San Francisco, CA
45. Dallas, TX
46. New Orleans, LA
47. St. Louis, MO
48. Richmond, VA
49. Sacramento, CA
50. Philadelphia, PA
51. Tacoma, WA
52. Long Beach, CA
53. Toledo, OH
54. Kansas City, MO
55. Houston, TX
56. Huntsville, AL
57. Mobile, AL
58. Boise, ID
59. Lexington-Fayette, KY
60. Columbus, OH
61. Oklahoma City, OK
62. Spokane, WA
63. Fort Worth, TX
64. Fort Lauderdale, FL
65. Lubbock, TX
66. Oakland, CA
67. Reno, NV
68. Raleigh-Durham, NC
69. Washington, DC
70. Tucson, AZ
71. Knoxville, TN
72. Charlotte, NC
73. Newark, NJ
74. Fresno, CA
75. Cleveland, OH
76. Riverside, CA
77. Wichita, KS
78. Fort Wayne, IN
79. Greensboro, NC
80. Winston-Salem, NC
81. Baton Rouge, LA
82. Nashville-Davidson, TN
83. Tulsa, OK
84. Laredo, TX
85. Jackson, MS
86. Akron, OH
87. San Bernardino, CA
88. Birmingham, AL
89. Stockton, CA
90. Louisville, KY
91. Modesto, CA
92. Shreveport, LA
93. Columbus, GA
94. Montgomery, AL
95. Memphis, TN
96. Dayton, OH
97. (tie) Jersey City, NJ
97. (tie) Bakersfield, CA

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