Best School Districts for Your Buck in Southern California

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Best School Districts for Your Buck in Southern California

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.

NerdWallet’s Analysis

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.

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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.

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Best school districts in Southern California

Rank School district Median home value SAT score STAR test mean scale score Graduation rate Students going on to higher education Student-to-teacher ratio Score
1 Walnut Valley Unified $597,800 1722 402 98.30% 84.64% 24.56 71.87
2 Irvine Unified $639,900 1813 398 95.50% 85.07% 24.87 70.44
3 Arcadia Unified $792,900 1789 399 98.30% 83.99% 22.91 70.02
4 San Luis Coastal Unified $484,900 1660 369 96.50% 74.64% 19.08 69.04
5 Conejo Valley Unified $597,500 1700 393 96.30% 83.65% 22.96 68.91
6 San Marino Unified $1,000,000 1831 412 99.30% 85.13% 21.26 68.73
7 Oak Park Unified $637,500 1783 395 95.30% 83.97% 24.25 68.54
8 Muroc Joint Unified $66,000 1471 358 93.90% 63.33% 22.76 67.74
9 Temple City Unified $584,500 1713 387 94.60% 78.33% 25.21 67.56
10 South Pasadena Unified $820,200 1761 402 97.20% 80.25% 23.38 67.44
11 La Canada Unified $1,000,000 1853 403 97.60% 88.13% 21.68 67.25
12 Silver Valley Unified $123,200 1431 350 93.90% 66.67% 18.86 67.24
13 Saddleback Valley Unified $473,300 1627 384 95.30% 83.34% 25.53 66.46
14 Calipatria Unified $78,700 1344 344 90.30% 80.88% 19.21 66.38
15 Los Alamitos Unified $566,000 1629 391 97.20% 85.38% 25.55 65.71
16 Glendora Unified $492,200 1594 370 97.90% 87.14% 23.92 65.64
17 Poway Unified $550,100 1688 386 95.20% 85.69% 26.66 65.57
18 Manhattan Beach Unified $1,000,000 1776 413 95.30% 85.08% 21.48 65.49
19 Imperial Unified $177,300 1458 350 96.60% 78.46% 23.64 64.70
20 Ventura Unified $421,900 1602 364 90.30% 84.01% 21.92 64.64
21 Brea-Olinda Unified $532,100 1606 385 96.40% 83.46% 26.90 64.31
22 San Dieguito Union High $813,200 1761 391 97.20% 81.31% 24.44 64.11
23 Sierra Sands Unified $177,100 1664 357 92.70% 33.64% 21.68 63.76
24 Santa Ynez Valley Union High $661,300 1615 365 95.60% 81.54% 18.51 63.72
25 Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified $1,000,000 1743 400 98.80% 84.73% 22.75 63.08
26 Claremont Unified $505,500 1592 363 97.30% 81.79% 23.47 63.00
27 ABC Unified $483,100 1600 373 93.40% 71.00% 23.71 62.74
28 Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified $574,100 1643 379 93.20% 79.42% 23.99 62.72
29 Temecula Valley Unified $300,600 1522 366 94.00% 77.20% 24.89 62.46
30 Templeton Unified $428,900 1604 357 97.80% 63.86% 21.65 62.38
31 Laguna Beach Unified $1,000,000 1750 387 96.10% 85.19% 20.86 62.31
32 Borrego Springs Unified $196,300 1351 352 84.60% 64.29% 14.25 62.12
33 El Segundo Unified $736,500 1601 389 97.00% 79.41% 23.55 62.12
34 Bonita Unified $433,100 1508 368 95.20% 78.79% 23.96 61.94
35 West Covina Unified $375,900 1515 344 96.50% 69.74% 18.90 61.78
36 Moorpark Unified $526,200 1647 360 90.50% 87.83% 23.59 61.50
37 Glendale Unified $597,400 1603 376 91.90% 79.30% 22.89 61.38
38 Bear Valley Unified $228,400 1586 349 91.00% 54.38% 22.65 61.34
39 Valley Center-Pauma Unified $421,700 1506 359 98.30% 71.58% 22.21 61.32
40 Morongo Unified $124,600 1474 356 85.60% 56.89% 21.83 61.29
41 Capistrano Unified $628,400 1612 382 97.20% 82.49% 26.59 61.27
42 Simi Valley Unified $433,000 1626 363 84.70% 80.20% 21.28 61.23
43 Atascadero Unified $388,800 1599 343 96.40% 62.97% 21.55 61.04
44 Alhambra Unified $421,000 1547 369 91.40% 72.23% 25.00 61.03
45 Torrance Unified $614,100 1580 369 95.70% 82.41% 24.01 60.97
46 Huntington Beach Union High $585,800 1584 373 93.10% 81.02% 24.44 60.87
47 San Marcos Unified $388,500 1507 370 94.50% 74.11% 24.07 60.86
48 Las Virgenes Unified $809,300 1709 379 95.40% 82.49% 21.48 60.81
49 Ojai Unified $516,100 1578 356 93.20% 76.45% 20.86 60.70
50 Lompoc Unified $257,500 1476 354 87.50% 68.57% 20.31 60.44
51 Beverly Hills Unified $1,000,000 1733 391 95.00% 66.06% 16.72 60.32
52 Redlands Unified $286,500 1521 354 91.20% 71.30% 23.09 60.27
53 Fullerton Joint Union High $441,100 1566 377 91.90% 75.93% 27.15 60.27
54 Holtville Unified $135,400 1284 340 89.00% 80.53% 20.33 60.20
55 Murrieta Valley Unified $286,300 1486 369 94.40% 71.01% 26.45 60.11
56 William S. Hart Union High $395,600 1611 368 93.00% 66.83% 24.97 60.09
57 Coast Unified $643,900 1481 358 91.90% 69.44% 15.55 59.73
58 Tustin Unified $599,900 1603 381 96.80% 76.83% 27.97 59.60
59 Brawley Union High $149,700 1362 344 93.00% 69.97% 23.82 59.60
60 Central Union High $148,500 1402 342 86.00% 82.50% 23.19 59.58
61 Carlsbad Unified $593,100 1628 375 94.80% 68.30% 24.90 59.48
62 Orange Unified $539,200 1539 373 93.90% 76.10% 24.29 59.43
63 Alhambra Unified $489,200 1547 369 91.40% 72.23% 25.00 59.35
64 Rim of the World Unified $227,900 1548 350 84.40% 67.80% 23.89 59.10
65 Lucia Mar Unified $442,300 1544 354 90.80% 70.65% 21.52 58.92
66 Covina-Valley Unified $371,400 1417 351 95.70% 73.74% 22.46 58.80
67 Upland Unified $421,100 1522 360 94.50% 65.89% 24.06 58.55
68 Snowline Joint Unified $166,600 1532 341 87.00% 71.43% 25.54 58.49
69 San Gabriel Unified $574,500 1587 373 89.00% 66.67% 23.48 58.00
70 Burbank Unified $554,700 1568 366 91.70% 71.41% 23.98 57.52
71 Taft Union High $119,700 1410 338 96.90% 11.74% 15.18 57.36
72 Charter Oak Unified $386,400 1401 357 94.20% 79.84% 25.43 57.29
73 Rowland Unified $408,200 1488 362 83.90% 74.09% 22.21 56.98
74 Garden Grove Unified $390,400 1450 364 89.20% 69.87% 25.26 56.27
75 Tehachapi Unified $217,200 1550 356 88.00% 37.15% 23.40 56.25
76 Bellflower Unified $369,300 1466 352 93.20% 65.21% 24.37 56.10
77 Yucaipa-Calimesa Joint Unified $219,100 1456 333 90.60% 67.34% 23.12 56.03
78 San Diego Unified $420,400 1406 349 87.90% 73.21% 19.03 56.00
79 Apple Valley Unified $170,700 1493 341 84.00% 63.76% 24.83 55.90
80 Anaheim Union High $385,800 1486 363 84.30% 73.41% 24.57 55.68
81 Escondido Union High $362,200 1511 357 82.60% 67.69% 21.89 55.25
82 Azusa Unified $304,500 1346 334 93.00% 63.22% 20.24 54.94
83 Redondo Beach Unified $715,000 1592 371 90.70% 77.44% 23.85 54.90
84 Hacienda la Puente Unified $361,500 1412 345 88.40% 69.40% 22.06 54.74
85 Ramona City Unified $383,100 1551 354 88.60% 69.14% 26.20 54.67
86 Paso Robles Joint Unified $366,600 1552 345 87.50% 54.63% 22.15 54.27
87 Santa Monica-Malibu Unified $1,000,000 1616 383 93.50% 73.07% 20.83 54.26
88 Culver City Unified $609,200 1530 369 86.60% 67.61% 23.01 53.99
89 Chino Valley Unified $384,200 1478 350 89.00% 75.24% 25.82 53.99
90 Hemet Unified $135,900 1443 344 79.00% 63.38% 24.48 53.98
91 Downey Unified $396,200 1418 353 92.70% 64.64% 24.54 53.78
92 Lake Elsinore Unified $223,300 1411 344 88.80% 60.32% 23.70 53.60
93 Delano Joint Union High $138,400 1319 361 92.90% 29.90% 25.28 53.58
94 Norwalk-La Mirada Unified $345,300 1399 341 94.00% 60.04% 23.42 53.37
95 Santa Maria Joint Union High $274,100 1397 335 84.00% 75.58% 22.73 53.15
96 Duarte Unified $360,600 1385 340 93.20% 61.13% 22.58 53.15
97 Chaffey Joint Union High $297,500 1426 351 86.20% 70.63% 26.20 52.88
98 El Tejon Unified $208,200 1489 337 84.40% 48.33% 24.18 52.55
99 Oceanside Unified $327,700 1519 347 87.00% 52.04% 24.25 52.41
100 Baldwin Park Unified $285,100 1342 337 93.20% 57.01% 24.16 52.11
101 Desert Sands Unified $278,900 1393 353 85.60% 62.44% 25.09 52.10
102 Newport-Mesa Unified $834,000 1513 370 93.40% 74.13% 22.20 52.04
103 Beaumont Unified $199,200 1414 339 88.90% 61.62% 26.21 51.66
104 El Monte Union High $371,900 1377 344 86.70% 61.08% 21.95 51.66
105 Vista Unified $360,200 1510 351 81.10% 59.04% 22.92 51.57
106 Corona-Norco Unified $348,200 1462 352 91.90% 51.30% 24.48 51.42
107 Fallbrook Union High $443,400 1491 346 86.00% 66.77% 22.62 51.41
108 Grossmont Union High $347,200 1464 355 78.30% 73.62% 25.24 51.37
109 Carpinteria Unified $654,000 1462 346 91.60% 72.25% 22.19 50.70
110 Palm Springs Unified $194,100 1328 341 87.20% 58.57% 25.32 50.55
111 Hesperia Unified $152,200 1343 332 83.20% 64.66% 25.65 50.11
112 Victor Valley Union High $135,200 1343 339 78.50% 62.79% 24.68 50.07
113 Fontana Unified $208,700 1311 342 86.40% 55.52% 23.69 50.06
114 Monrovia Unified $493,400 1319 362 86.80% 67.82% 22.23 49.88
115 Fillmore Unified $305,600 1449 322 87.20% 70.00% 24.44 49.66
116 Long Beach Unified $421,000 1427 344 80.80% 78.86% 25.07 49.45
117 Bassett Unified $312,500 1324 336 91.30% 49.84% 22.79 49.42
118 Palo Verde Unified $124,100 1342 316 81.70% 68.89% 24.28 49.35
119 Santa Ana Unified $342,300 1359 335 85.90% 66.07% 23.40 49.30
120 El Rancho Unified $331,100 1311 346 87.50% 57.20% 23.77 49.28
121 Val Verde Unified $173,100 1306 338 90.20% 47.58% 25.17 49.28
122 Sweetwater Union High $331,000 1411 350 83.20% 58.58% 23.69 49.24
123 Riverside Unified $262,000 1428 342 85.50% 52.36% 25.39 49.02
124 Perris Union High $182,000 1361 344 84.40% 59.24% 28.18 48.96
125 Pomona Unified $286,900 1292 323 79.10% 65.53% 16.35 48.92
126 Calexico Unified $153,600 1321 325 75.40% 82.76% 25.85 48.60
127 San Jacinto Unified $126,200 1300 338 81.60% 55.39% 24.85 48.54
128 Lucerne Valley Unified $101,100 1342 349 68.40% 43.48% 19.19 48.50
129 Barstow Unified $104,100 1299 328 73.10% 65.58% 22.63 48.32
130 Whittier Union High $362,400 1350 352 87.30% 62.37% 27.30 48.15
131 Wasco Union High $132,000 1374 344 83.50% 26.43% 24.44 47.97
132 Rialto Unified $168,900 1316 332 80.00% 60.07% 24.05 47.84
133 Oxnard Union High $371,000 1426 339 77.50% 74.82% 24.86 46.99
134 Mountain Empire Unified $242,700 1365 330 70.00% 53.06% 16.54 46.79
135 San Bernardino City Unified $158,300 1318 327 75.50% 57.74% 21.90 46.70
136 Paramount Unified $281,400 1284 336 80.80% 65.23% 23.61 46.69
137 Santa Paula Union High $324,200 1308 332 85.10% 76.58% 26.89 46.50
138 Southern Kern Unified $121,100 1401 321 77.60% 52.43% 24.67 46.21
139 Colton Joint Unified $193,900 1335 322 77.80% 57.51% 21.20 46.21
140 Montebello Unified $365,300 1336 332 87.30% 58.83% 25.24 46.08
141 McFarland Unified $115,800 1199 331 83.30% 26.88% 18.68 45.96
142 Moreno Valley Unified $179,300 1327 326 81.50% 51.29% 23.44 45.82
143 Jurupa Unified $216,600 1353 331 82.00% 41.76% 23.06 45.41
144 Alvord Unified $226,400 1366 344 80.20% 46.26% 25.83 45.29
145 Coachella Valley Unified $139,200 1209 325 79.10% 52.48% 21.69 44.55
146 Banning Unified $158,700 1282 314 83.70% 53.33% 26.77 43.39
147 Acton-Agua Dulce Unified $451,600 1395 335 86.60% 49.61% 23.36 42.56
148 Pasadena Unified $600,600 1338 330 82.80% 66.96% 20.44 42.27
149 Mojave Unified $88,500 1280 318 74.90% 37.59% 23.61 41.06
150 Inglewood Unified $352,400 1210 318 80.60% 61.70% 26.07 36.66
151 Los Angeles Unified $417,000 1254 330 68.10% 62.73% 20.68 36.40
152 Centinela Valley Union High $386,300 1247 317 68.20% 68.72% 25.63 33.67
153 Compton Unified $238,200 1169 308 65.00% 60.62% 23.25 32.55

Methodology

The score for each district was calculated from these measures:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

NerdWallet writer Anna Helhoski contributed to this article.


Ventura County, California, image via iStock.