Some of the best school districts in the nation are found in sunny Southern California. Here students are challenged by rigorous coursework, compete in athletic and academic events and create outstanding performances and visual art. The students in these districts also have high rates of graduation and enrollment in postsecondary education.
But Southern California is one of the priciest places to live: In Orange County, the median housing price is upward of $700,000, according to the California Association of Realtors. As well, the most affluent areas also tend to produce high-performing schools, posing a challenge for families who are looking for great schools and affordable homes. But it doesn’t mean you can’t find districts with more reasonably priced homes and schools with award-winning programs to match your needs.
A previous NerdWallet study analyzed the Best School Districts for Your Buck in California. This time, we crunched the numbers to compare Southern California schools only — in the 10 counties in the region from San Luis Obispo, Kern and San Bernardino counties to San Diego and Imperial counties.
To find the best schools in Southern California, we weighed a district’s affordability, standardized test scores, college readiness and student-to-teacher ratio. We analyzed 153 unified and secondary school districts in Southern California.
Best school districts in Southern California
1. Walnut Valley Unified
Walnut Valley schools in eastern Los Angeles County are among the most impressive in Southern California. About 14,600 students attend 15 schools, where there’s a student-to-teacher ratio of about 24:1. Both high schools have International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement programs, while two elementary schools offer International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme. Many schools have been honored as California Distinguished Schools and National Blue Ribbon Schools, and this year, Walnut Valley’s three middle schools were designated California Gold Ribbon Schools, the award given during the hiatus of the distinguished schools program. In addition to general academics, the district also features targeted learning in areas such as Chinese languages, STEM, health, design, performing arts, college prep and advanced placement.
2. Irvine Unified
Irvine Unified School District in Orange County has 39 schools in the district, including an independent study high school. Students see average SAT scores of 1813, the second highest on our top 10 list. About 85% of students go on to postsecondary education. Irvine schools have won California Distinguished Schools and National Blue Ribbon awards multiple times. This year, Northwood and University high schools were both named 2015 California Gold Ribbon Schools. Irvine Unified’s unique academic offerings include an Elementary Science Specialist Program, comprehensive visual and performing arts education and an Integrated Mathematics Pathway that focuses on math programs.
3. Arcadia Unified
Arcadia Unified School District in Los Angeles County has 11 schools that offer student-teacher ratios of about 22:1. The average SAT score is 1789, and about 84% of students go on to postsecondary education. The high school offers several Advanced Placement and honors courses, and earlier this year, the school unveiled a $3.8 million library, media center and cafeteria. During this year’s Super Bowl, a commercial featured a performance by the Arcadia High School band.
4. San Luis Coastal Unified
San Luis Coastal Unified School District in San Luis Obispo County includes 10 elementary schools, two middle schools and three high schools. At a median value of $484,900, homes in the San Luis Obispo area are more affordable than in most districts on our list. Student-teacher ratios are low — for every 19 students there is one teacher. In the past few years, schools in the district have received numerous awards including California Distinguished School designation, National Blue Ribbon award, California Business for Educational Excellence Scholar School and a 2014 California Gold Ribbon Schools Award. Earlier this year, the district was the site of protests by faculty and staff over contract negotiations, but a resolution was reached in May.
5. Conejo Valley Unified
Conejo Valley Unified School District, located in Ventura County, serves 21,000 students with 27 schools in the Thousand Oaks, Newbury Park and Westlake Village areas. About 84% of all students go on to postsecondary education. Over the past few years, the district modernized schools, installing new roofs, repaving parking lots, replacing playground equipment, renovating bathrooms and updating athletic facilities. The school board also recently picked a new superintendent for the district. Academically, the district’s schools have won several awards, including a 2015 California Gold Ribbon Schools Award. The district offers honors, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs as well as school-to-career opportunities, intervention programs and support for all kinds of learners.
6. San Marino Unified
San Marino Unified School District, located in the affluent city of San Marino in Los Angeles County, has just four schools. The median home values are the highest on our top 10 list at $1 million, and SAT scores also are the highest on our list at an average of 1831. The graduation rate is 99.3%, the highest on our top 10 list, and 85% of students go on to postsecondary education. Every school is a California Distinguished School and the district consistently receives accolades. The district offers a range of rigorous academic and advanced courses, along with emphasis on arts and athletics.
7. Oak Park Unified
Oak Park Unified School District, in the Simi Hills of Ventura County, is made up of eight schools. About 84% of all students go on to postsecondary education, and the average SAT score is 1783. The district’s motto is “Educating Compassionate and Creative Global Citizens,” which is reflected in its academic programs. The district demonstrates its commitment to the environment with its recycling and food waste composting program, and it was awarded the Green Schools Leadership Award by Green Schools California. As well, several new classrooms were built from recycled shipping containers.
8. Muroc Joint Unified
Muroc Joint Unified School District serves the communities of Boron, North Edwards and Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert. The district is small, with 2,000 students. In recent years, several schools have been selected as California Distinguished Schools. Since much of the district is on a military base, the median home values in Muroc are the lowest on our top 10 at $66,000. The district’s SAT scores are on the lower end of our list with an average of 1471. About 63% of all students pursue post-secondary education. The district has faced federal funding challenges in recent years and repairs are needed in the schools and facilities.
9. Temple City Unified
Temple City Unified School District, located in West San Gabriel Valley, has nine schools. Temple City’s average SAT score is 1713, and 78% of students pursue a post-secondary education. The district embraces its core values of service, integrity and honor through academics and extracurricular activities. Schools in this district have received several California Distinguished School awards. The district is in the middle of a massive renovation project, including a new two-story classroom facility at the high school as well as updates at the middle and elementary schools.
10. South Pasadena Unified
South Pasadena Unified School District, in Los Angeles County, has five schools just outside downtown Los Angeles. The median home value in the area is $820,200, which is higher than most other places on our top 10 list. About 80% of all students go on to postsecondary education. The board of education recently approved a Dual Immersion Language Program in both Spanish and Mandarin, beginning in kindergarten. South Pasadena High School offers several honors and advanced placement courses. High school programs are comprehensive and popular — about three-quarters of the student body participate in at least one program.
The score for each district was calculated from these measures:
- Housing cost for each school district is 25% of the total score. Housing cost was calculated by averaging the district index score for median home values and selected monthly homeowner costs (which includes property tax) for the school district. The more affordable the area, the higher the cost score. Data are from the 2013 U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
- Standardized testing score is 35% of the total score. The SAT average and mean scale score for the high school STAR test were equally weighted. STAR tests that were included for our rankings were summative math, integrated math 3, biology and English language arts. Data are from the California Department of Education.
- College readiness for the class of 2013 is 30% of the total score. College readiness was a combination of a school district’s high school graduation rate, which is the percentage of students who graduate in the standard four years, and the percentage of students going on to four-year institutions for higher education. Data came from the California Department of Education.
- Student-to-teacher ratio, or class size, is 10% of the score. This score was manually calculated by dividing the number of full-time teaching staff in a school by the number of students enrolled. Data are from the California Department of Education.
We defined Southern California as the counties of Imperial, Kern, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura.