Best Places to Raise Your Kids: 2010

See which town ranked highest in BusinessWeek’s fourth annual survey of the Best Places to Raise Your Kids. Hint: It’s in Illinois

You’d think that the character of a village that grew from 12,000 to 60,000 residents in less than 40 years might have changed with the population. But young families move into Tinley Park, Ill., a proud village 25 miles southwest of Chicago, for the same reason that Edward and Emily Zabrocki chose to raise their children there in 1970.

“We looked at the schools and the community services,” said Zabrocki, a retired high school guidance counselor who has been Tinley Park’s mayor since 1981. “And we found a house that was good for our pocketbook.”

Tinley Park, with its top-rated schools, low crime, beautiful parks, relatively affordable houses, and easy access to jobs, is the winner of BusinessWeek’s Best Places in America to Raise Kids. Working with OnBoard Informatics, we chose a winner for each state, but the Chicago suburb — only an hour south of last year’s winner, Mount Prospect, Ill. — scored the highest.

Named after the village’s first railroad master in the 1800s, Tinley Park has two train stations, which carry commuters to Chicago in 45 minutes. Single-family homes for sale in Tinley Park start at $166,000 for a two-bedroom, two-bath house spread over 1,200 square feet to brand-new four-bedroom house for $630,000.

Settling Down

All three of the main high schools serving Tinley Park are ranked in the top 100 in the state. And the students are closely tied to the community and often stay there after graduating.

At Andrew High School, where each student is required to complete 24 hours of community service to graduate, only about 3% of the 2,400 student body move away during high school, compared with the state average of 14%, said principal Robert Nolting.

“There are a high number of kids in Tinley Park who have lived there their whole life,” Nolting said. “Of the communities I’ve lived in or have been part of, it has more interconnectedness to it. It feels smaller than it is.”

The village is quiet and safe. But it was shaken on Feb. 2, 2008, when a man posing as a delivery man shot five women to death at a clothing store in one of Tinley Park’s outdoor malls. It was a big shock but it brought the community even closer, said Tinley Park High School Principal Theresa Zielinski.

“It shocked everybody,” said Zielinski, a lifelong resident. “It’s not what happens here in our town.”

Friendly Atmosphere

Safety, along with school test scores, air quality, and affordability, were weighted especially highly in this year’s calculations. But we also considered job growth, diversity, and amenities such as museums, parks, and theaters.

Many of our picks also share Tinley Park’s family-friendly atmosphere. Owensboro, our top pick for Kentucky, is a good example. The industrial town, about 100 miles southwest of Louisville known for its mutton barbecue and as the birthplace of actor Johnny Depp, takes pride in its school district and hires accordingly, said Keith Lawrence, business reporter for the Messenger-Inquirer newspaper in Owensboro. The town’s former superintendent left to become superintendent of the Lexington school district. The median home is about $100,000, and it’s so safe that two middle-aged women once set out to walk every mile of the 18.7-square-mile city. “They started walking after getting off work at 10 p.m., Lawrence said. “There aren’t a whole lot of cities you would do that.”

“It’s kind of a 21st century version of Leave It to Beaver — church and family and Little League and soccer,” said Lawrence who raised a family in Owensboro. “It’s really family-oriented. If you’re single, though, it’s rough.”

Affordable, Safe, and Family-Friendly

As we did last year, we teamed up with OnBoard Informatics, a New York-based provider of real estate analysis, to select one town and two runners-up for each of the 50 states. The selections were limited to towns that have at least 45,000 residents and a median income of between $40,000 and $125,000. Vermont was given a pass on the population restrictions because none of its cities would otherwise have made the cut.

We used the same criteria to rank the towns, but we shifted the weights slightly to come up with what we consider better results. The data we used included school performance, number of schools, household expenditures, crime rates, air quality, job growth, family income, museums, parks, theaters, other amenities, and diversity.

Affordability, safety, and school test scores were given the greatest weight.

Some communities made the list again this year, including Warner Robins, a military town in Georgia, and the Charlotte suburb of Rock Hill, S.C. But most of the towns we chose are new to the list. The Chicago suburb of Tinley Park, Ill., which won the nation’s overall best ranking this year, is just an hour south of last year’s winner, Mount Prospect, Ill.

Last year, readers reacted strongly to our list. Read this year’s picks. Let the online discussion begin.

1. Dothan, Alabama

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Nearest city: Tallahassee, Fla.
Population: 63,921
Median family income: $57,560
Runners-up: Auburn, Montgomery

Dothan, located near the Florida border about 95 miles northwest of Tallahassee, Fla. is a fast-growing agricultural town known as the “Peanut Capital of the World.” The National Peanut Festival is held in Dothan each November.

The community also has a botanical garden and opera house.

2. Anchorage, Alaska

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Population: 288,473
Median family income: $83,823
Runners-up: N/A

Anchorage, the state’s largest city, is known for its wildlife and scenery.

It also features a low crime rate and one of the nation’s most resilient economies.

3. Tuscon, Arizona

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Population: 523,006
Median family income: $47,472
Runners-up: Yuma, Casas Adobes

Tucson, surrounded by mountains and the beauty of the Sonora desert, is an affordable city that is home to the University of Arizona and University Medical Center, which are among its largest employers.

It’s also a relatively affordable place to live, with more than 100 parks, a good public transportation system, and many public and private golf courses.

4. Springdale, Arkansas

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Nearest city: Fayetteville, Ark.
Population: 62,459
Median family income: $53,767
Runners-up: Fayetteville, Rogers

Springdale, a blue-collar town located in the state’s northwest, came in No. 1 in Arkansas for the second straight year.

Springdale is renowned as the home of Tyson Foods, but it also has a minor-league stadium, a major rodeo event, and is close to fishing and hunting areas.

5. Arcadia, California

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Nearest city: Los Angeles
Population: 55,817
Median family income: $83,480
Runners-up: Monterey Park, Diamond Bar

Arcadia, located about 20 miles from Los Angeles, is the state’s best place to raise kids for the second consecutive year because of its low crime and excellent schools. The population of Arcadia includes a number of peacocks that hang out in the neighborhood near the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanical Garden.

6. Highlands Ranch, Colorado

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Nearest city: Denver
Population: 96,056
Median family income: $121,294
Runners-up: Boulder, Fort Collins

Highlands Ranch is a 22,000-acre planned community located 12 miles south of Denver. Founded in 1981, Highlands Ranch now has a population of nearly 94,000 and is served by the well-respected Douglas County School District. The community has about 70 miles of trails, 22 parks, and more than 2,000 acres of open space.

7. New Haven, Connecticut

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Nearest city: New Haven
Population: 53,959
Median family income: $64,981
Runners-up: Bristol, East Hartford

West Haven, located about five miles from Yale University in New Haven, is home to the University of New Haven.

It has excellent schools and a shoreline that is popular with birdwatchers.

8. Wilmington, Delaware

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Population: 73,319
Median family income: $52,586
Runners-up: N/A

Wilmington, the state’s largest city, is located just 30 miles from Philadelphia. It is circled by suburbs with excellent schools, including Brandywine Hundred and Hockessin.

Wilmington has an attractive riverfront with outlet stores, restaurants, a minor-league baseball stadium, and concerts.

9. Pembroke Pines, Florida

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Nearest city: Fort Lauderdale
Population: 164,259
Median family income: $78,660
Runners-up: Sunrise, Tamarac

Pembroke Pines, a fast-growing city about 15 miles south of downtown Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is our top Florida pick for the second straight year. The city is popular with retirees but also has plenty of young families, many of which left Miami Dade County to fill its shiny new developments during the housing boom. Among the attractions for these young families: low crime, the Pembroke Lakes Mall, and the schools, which include a charter high school.

10. Warner Robins, Georgia

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Nearest city: Macon
Population: 49,515
Median family income: $62,715
Runners-up: Valdosta, Roswell

Warner Robins, about 120 miles south of Atlanta, is home to the 6,400-acre Robins Air Force Base, the state’s largest single employer.

Many of the residents of this proud town outside Macon, Ga., are former military personnel. Warner Robins won the Little League World Series in 2007.

For all slides, relative safety was measured by the “total crime risk,” an index of the combined risks of rape, murder, assault, robbery, burglary, larceny, and vehicle theft. Crime scores were based on demographic and geographic analyses of crime over seven years. School performance was based on state reading and math test scores and came from Great Schools. Zoo data came from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums and museum, theater, park, and recreation information came from InfoUSA. Air quality information came from the Environmental Protection Agency, household expenditures and diversity data were collected from the U.S. Census Bureau, and job growth data came from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Source: OnBoard Informatics

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