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California boasts some of America’s top public schools and competition for homes in these districts can be fierce.

Take Piedmont, considered by some to be the best district in the San Francisco Bay Area. The average home price in Piedmont, according to Zillow, is $1,737,900. In Southern California, every single one of the schools in La Caรฑada Flintridge earned a perfect 10 at the popular school rating website GreatSchools. To buy a home there, be prepared to spend an average of $1.5 million. Both of these communities are well out of reach of the average worker in California, who earns about $1,100 a week, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.


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But there are hidden gems throughout the state – places where children can still get an excellent public education and home prices aren’t reserved for the very wealthy. NerdWallet crunched the numbers and found places for families who want strong schools near big cities or those who are looking to live in California’s more rural areas.

NerdWallet’s analysis

Here’s how we found the best school districts in California:

Affordability. We calculated this by averaging the district index score for median home values and selected monthly homeowner costs (which includes property tax) for the school district.
Standardized test scores. We analyzed high school STAR scores and SAT scores for the 2012-13 school year. STAR, Standardized Testing and Reporting, has since been replaced by CAASPP, the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress. These are the state’s student achievement assessments.

College readiness. We factored in the most recent data on graduation rates and students seeking post-secondary education.
Class size. We also considered the student-to-teacher ratio.

We analyzed 375 school districts in California. All data are from the U.S. Census Bureau or the California Department of Education.

Key takeaways
Small areas score big. Many high performing districts we found are in more rural areas such as in Calaveras County’s Gold Country. If your career isn’t tied to a major metropolitan area, these smaller communities can offer great value.

Affordable options exist. You don’t need to spend a mint to live in a good school district. In the area that supports high-performing Shasta Union High School District in Redding, home values average $236,400.

Best school districts in California

1. Davis Joint Unified School District

Davis Joint Unified is one of the highest-performing school districts in the state with a SAT average of 1756 and a graduation rate of 97.5%. Home values in this city west of Sacramento hover at about $546,000, which is on the higher end of our top 10. The district has 21 schools, including Davis Senior High and Da Vinci Charter Academy.

2. Scott Valley Unified School District

Established in 2007, this young school district, about 40 miles south of the Oregon border, has already seen marked success. Both Etna and Fort Jones elementary schools are California distinguished schools, and Scott Valley High School also impresses with STAR scores that are in the top quarter of results statewide. The cost of a home in this district, which prides itself on its location in the valleys of Siskiyou County, is on the lower end of our top 10 at $212,800. For families seeking smaller classes, the district of 700 features about 15 students per class.

3. Palo Alto Unified School District

Palo Alto, even with higher-end San Francisco Bay Area median home values upward of $1 million, makes our list because while housing in other school districts is just as costly, the quality here can’t be matched. The district has both the highest SAT and STAR scores in the state, and 89% of students go on to graduate from post-secondary education. Furthermore, Palo Alto Unified averages a class size of 17 students – offering a personalized education at all levels.

4. Shasta Union High School District

Serving Redding and surrounding areas in Northern California, Shasta Union High School District makes our list due to a strong graduation rate, solid test scores and housing costs of $234,600. Home to the Shasta Wolves, the Enterprise Hornets and Foothill’s Cougars, Shasta Union High is a school district that offers students a variety of extracurricular activities. Award-winning music programs and activities, such as mock trials and the robotics club, create a diverse student experience.

5. Bret Harte Union High School District

Bret Harte Union High School District, in the state’s Gold Country in Calaveras County, is named after the American poet. The district makes the list due to a strong graduation rate of 94.7% and a class size of 16 students. The Bret Harte High School is the major school in this district, which although small, provides an array of athletic programs, including football, golf and swimming.

6. Walnut Valley Unified School District

Located in eastern Los Angeles County, this school district serves the cities of Walnut and Diamond Bar. The school district had one of the state’s highest graduation rates of 98.3%, as well as a high SAT average of 1785. The school district is home to Walnut High, a two-time national blue ribbon school and a seven-time California distinguished school. The school has rigorous course requirements, but also offers electives such as business management and entrepreneurship and architecture: drawing and design.

7. Siskiyou Union High School District

Siskiyou Union High is a rural school district in Northern California’s Siskiyou County. This district, which is near several national parks, includes five high schools and about 750 students. Like nearby Shasta Union, homes are among the more affordable on our list at $240,000. The district’s largest high school, Mount Shasta, scores a 7 out of 10 at GreatSchools, and offers courses ranging from music theory to business law.

8. Sutter Union High School District

Sutter Union High School District makes our list as it’s both affordable – housing here is the lowest on our top 10 at $219,000 – and it has a high graduation rate of 98.8%. The rural school district near Yuba City, in the northern part of the state, is home to Sutter Union High School, widely known in the area for its successful athletic programs. The school also offers clubs such as the Future Business Leaders of America.

9. Acalanes Union High School District

This large school district that serves four different high schools in Contra Costa County scores impressive marks across the board. The district has the state’s highest rate of students who graduate from post-secondary education, as well as a graduation rate of 98.1%, and an average SAT score of 1802. The district’s quality is even throughout, and all four of its schools place in the top 60 of California’s over 1,000 high schools.

10. Durham Unified School District

Durham Unified seeks to educate by standing by its slogan “Small Schools, Big Education.” The superintendent’s promise to provide small class sizes at every grade level is backed up by data, which show a class size of 17 students. Durham High School has graduation rates of 94.5% with 86% going on to graduate from post-secondary education. The district, with an  average home value of $354,300, is an option for those who want to live only miles from Chico, home of California State University, Chico.

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