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Best Places to Raise Kids
The 12 Most Family-Friendly Philly Suburbs
Courtesy of Philadelphia Magazine // Photography by Ryan Donnell
If you are forgoing city for ‘burbs, as a parent you want two things: safe streets and good schools. But after that, the choices vary: A touch of urbanity? Wide-open spaces? A charming downtown? We crunched the numbers, analyzed the data and forayed out into the field. No matter your preference, we found a locale worth moving to.
School district: Lower Merion
Average SAT scores: 574 math / 589 reading / 576 writing
Crime rate: 1.49 violent crimes per 1,000; 13.86 nonviolent per 1,000
Median home price: $382,000
Flanked by bustling Montgomery and Wynnewood avenues, Narberth—a half-square-mile borough nestled in the middle of Lower Merion Township—is easy to miss. Which is just fine by self-professed “Narbs”; after all, that’s what makes the town a magnet for kid-raising, even if there’s no place to park. The über-private and clannish should keep moving, but if you’re looking for over-the-fence chitchat and a plethora of playdates, this is the burg for you: Everyone here knows everyone else. Despite its postage-stamp size, the town boasts its own government and police force. Kids can walk to the old-school movie house, and the town offers diversions both active (a sprawling park that hosts countless sports leagues) and creative (the Handwork Studio organizes workshops to teach knitting and other crafty skills). Parents come for the vaunted Lower Merion schools but stay for the family-friendly vibe, reflected in a calendar of events whose highlight is a legendary annual Dickens fete that transforms downtown into 1840s London.
School district: Lower Moreland
SAT scores: 537 math / 566 reading / 550 writing
Crime rate: .48 violent crimes per 1,000; 19.11 nonviolent per 1,000
Median home price: $365,000
Leafy and green, Huntingdon Valley doesn’t have a lot of shopping or decent restaurants, but it does have that rarest of modern commodities: silence. Sit out during the summer, and you can actually hear the crickets—and, blissfully, not much else. What the town lacks in Main Street amenities it makes up for in “a real sense of community,” says mother-of-three Linda Kline—“a sense that people are looking out for each other.” Parents are expected to be involved in the schools, and they are: Lower Moreland sends a staggering 97 percent of its students on to college, a long-standing tradition in one of the most well-educated and successful areas in the state. And while there may be little “there there,” fewer diversions mean more focus on actual family and neighbor connections. Says Kline, “You always have the feeling you’re raising your kids in a positive environment.” Sometimes, it takes a Valley …
School district: Radnor Township
Average SAT scores: 567 math / 606 reading / 568 writing
Crime rate: .64 violent crimes per 1,000 residents; 10.66 nonviolent per 1,000 Median home price: $456,500**
The perennial worry of city-dwellers has been that moving to suburbia risks landing in a place that isn’t really a place—no middle, no center, no soul. Out in Wayne, yes, the schools are great. We know it’s safe. “But for a while, Wayne had a stigma as older and upper-class,” says Pattie Lamantia, owner of the Wedding Shoppe. “It’s gotten much younger now.” And when Beau Moffitt of Out There Outfitters describes what he calls “Walk to Wayne” as if it’s an official event, you understand why: Once you’re about 11 years old, Moffitt says, you can make the trek downtown from, say, half a tree-lined mile away. And you do, often, to hang out with other kids at Gumdrops & Sprinkles or the old Anthony Wayne Theater or maybe the art center. Or you stroll down with your parents: They’ll have a latte at Gryphon, you’ll hang at Bravo Pizza, everyone rendezvousing at Christopher’s for a proper family dinner. Downtown Wayne beckons. It’s friendly and easy and warm, and sometimes dramatically old-time Americana: The lighting of the town Christmas tree. The soap-box derby. Only one problem: not enough parking. So … walk. Into smart suburbia with a soul. *Population of Radnor Township; includes Wayne and other neighborhoods.
School district: Rose Tree Media
Average SAT scores: 527 math / 543 reading / 526 writing
Crime rate: .27 violent crimes per 1,000; 2.17 nonviolent per 1,000
Median home price: $293,000
For modern parents who want it all—domesticity and woodsy open space, great schools and great restaurants—we say: You can’t have everything. But in unassuming Upper Providence, you can come really close. And you’ll be in good company—of the almost 3,000 families in the last census, nearly a third had children under age 18. That families are flocking here is no surprise: With 2,600 acres of woodland next door at Ridley Creek State Park and the Delaware County seat of Media nestled in its bosom, Upper Providence offers a heady mix of both nature and culture. “My only complaint is the deer,” jokes Patricia Giardinelli, a librarian at the Media-Upper Providence Library and mother of two. She goes on to praise the Rose Tree school district—a Department of Education Blue Ribbon Award nominee (“So diverse”)—and the quiet safety of the streets. Still, “There’s so much going on in the borough,” she says. “We moved here because of Media.” We moved here because of Media? Uh, yes. Where else do the perks range from free Reiki sessions to an annual Christmas lights display worthy of Bedford Falls? Here, it’s a wonderful life.
School district: Central Bucks
Average SAT scores: 550 math / 571 reading / 557 writing
Crime rate: .34 violent crimes per 1,000; 7.34 nonviolent per 1,000
Median home price: $390,000
When the city is too congested and the suburbs are too, well, suburb-y, Warwick’s unique brand of farm-fresh suburbia, in a pastoral swath of Bucks County, offers an atmosphere that’s tight-knit without being suffocatingly cul-de-sac. Years ago, Warwick’s families kept to themselves in rural neighborhoods, but the recent establishment of a Little League and a heavy community-events schedule (Colonial reenactments!) have the township pulling together a bit more tightly. “Warwick Day” comes complete with Pollyanna-esque pie-baking competitions, and parents swap war stories at local pub the Jamison Pour House while the kids hang out in the gaming room. The township’s most singular feature may be its proximity to Ross Hill Farm, perhaps the most notable pig farm in the region and the host of an annual “Piggypalooza.” (What kid doesn’t love a good pig?) The only real downside: the distance from Philly (23 miles, but an hour’s drive). But Helene Gold, a former local PTA president who commutes to the city daily, says it’s manageable: “That’s the trade-off. I drive far to work so my kids can have the childhood I wanted to give them.”
School district: Council Rock
SAT scores: 535 math / 563 reading / 546 writing
Crime rate: .59 violent crimes per 1,000; 9.28 nonviolent per 1,000
Median home price: $585,000
Residents here respect the town’s lush green scenery; the township’s aggressive reforestation and restoration of stream banks has preserved more than a full third of its open space. Kids raised here grow up near the site of George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, anticipating the annual Christmas Day reenactment of the event (thanks to cheery help from the local fire department); families pop in at McConkey’s Ferry Inn Museum, where Washington had dinner before launching. The renowned Council Rock School District has a culture of high expectations and levels of parental involvement: If you’re coming here to raise kids, you’re likely to be helping to paint the school mascot’s costume or fund-raising for playground equipment. While organized sports are a constant (including a passionate lacrosse base), locals take equal pride in school music programs—perfect for the budding Beethoven in your brood.
School District: Lower Merion
Average SAT scores: 574 math / 589 reading / 576 writing
Crime rate: .58 violent crimes per 1,000; 15.29 nonviolent per 1,000*
Median home price: $415,000
For young couples looking to set up shop—and not move that shop for a good handful of years—Wynnewood serves as a perfect gateway address to the Main Line. It’s of the first-ring variety of suburbia, technically just a postal district nestled in Lower Merion. A mere eight driven miles or four train stops outside Center City, Wynnewood is especially appealing for new suburbanites not quite ready to rip off the city-life Band-Aid. And while it’s chock-full of the stately Chestnut Hill-esque stone manses one still thinks of as old Main Line—established, mature developments, as opposed to new construction—there’s also an abundance of lovely homes to be had beginning in the $200,000s and low $300,000s, a real estate diversity not shared by its more western neighbors. The Wynnewood Shopping Center serves as the de facto town hub, while a sojourn to nearby Narberth quenches the need for cutesy. And kids attend those powerhouse Lower Merion schools, promising the path to a Successful Life. It might not be where you retire. But it’s hard to find a better place to start.
School district: Wallingford-Swarthmore
Average SAT scores: 559 math / 575 reading / 558 writing
Crime rate: 1.15 violent crimes per 1,000; 13.83 nonviolent per 1,000
Median home price: $405,000
Maybe it’s the choo-choo train in downtown Swarthmore’s stroller-packed Tot Lot. Or the kid-friendly yoga classes at the Creative Living Room rec center. Or our personal fave, the local Santa Claus hot line, which dispatches St. Nick himself for in-home Christmas Eve visits. Something about this college town, packed with shady streets of (affordable!) colonials and Victorians, incites even the most jaded to want to hop on a tricycle and pedal back to childhood. But while kids in Swarthmore reap the benefits of award-winning public schools (the elementary school has a U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon) and bike rides to the revered Co-Op (whose produce is literally award-winning) and library (which has the largest circulation rate per capita in the county), grown-ups don’t have it bad, either. The town’s august namesake college opens up its concerts, lectures and 300-acre arboretum to the public, meaning kids aren’t the only ones with stimulating extracurriculars—good news, since the whole town is dry. While it can all get a bit crunchy, and taxes are steep (those blue ribbons don’t come cheap), that’s more than offset by easy train access into Philly and the quaintness of a soap-opera town without all of those desperate housewives.
School district: New Hope-Solebury
SAT scores: 555 math / 564 reading / 548 writing
Crime rate: .91 violent crimes per 1,000; 8.64 nonviolent per 1,000
Median home price: $537,000
Looking to nurture a Tom Sawyer-type adventurer? Parents come here for the wide-open spaces. Land conservation’s big: Residents have voted for higher taxes (it’s still a bargain, claims one parent) to save green space and farmland from development. The township’s quaint villages have historical-marker appeal with none of the shabbiness; moms and dads in these parts may embrace their farm-y aesthetic, but they earn Wall Street and pharma salaries. The high-participation youth sports leagues (football, soccer, baseball and more) and the solid, small New Hope-Solebury School District mean everybody’s acquainted, involved and serving on a committee; you’ll need to show up an hour early to get a good seat at the third-grade recital. Just how rural is Solebury? Among the FAQs addressed on the township’s website: “What should I do about a dead deer in my yard?” But the occasional animal carcass is a small price to pay for parents craving life in the archetypal American pastoral, and a stone’s throw away, New Hope, Doylestown and Peddlers Village provide the artsiness, shopping, nightlife.
School district: Colonial ∆SAT scores: 526 math / 549 reading / 522 writing
Crime rate: .51 violent crimes per 1,000; 12.02 nonviolent per 1,000**
Average home price: $295,000
Location, location, location: It’s the real estate seller’s mantra. And while parents don’t pick a place to raise a family based solely on commuting, if they did, they might pick Lafayette Hill. For those whose jobs and responsibilities take them back and forth between city and ’burbs, the town offers perhaps the region’s best location—an idyllic burg with great schools and community can-do spirit sitting snugly between the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Blue Route and the Schuylkill Expressway. A cheaper alternative to living on the Main Line, it’s also well framed, surrounded by Morris Arboretum, a state park, and six golf courses (including one rated in the top hundred by Golfweek magazine), as well as Chestnut Hill and Mount Airy, infusing city vibes without city problems. Still, it has “a very small atmosphere,” in the words of Linda Pudles, manager of Down 2 Earth Kids and a mother of two. That translates into an informal network of playdate-making parents who could run a Fortune 500 company with their organizing skills, as manifested in everything from the packed annual Whitemarsh Township Day in April (think The Music Man’s River City sans the 76 trombones) to the summer entertainment series, with free movies and concerts staged in Miles Park. And the library is currently undergoing a $4.4 million renovation, cementing its status as the ersatz town square.
School district: Jenkintown
Average SAT scores: 565 math / 574 reading / 579 writing
Crime rate: .93 violent crimes per 1,000; 3.49 nonviolent per 1,000
Median home price: $160,000
For the car-averse, the organic, the financially squeezed and, most of all, the urban-obsessed, the options for raising a family once that family starts growing can seem troubling: Stay in the funky, gentrifying city ’hood (NoLibs, Bella Vista, Grad Hospital), down the street from the PBR-strewn vacant lot where the hipsters play their weekly games of ironic kickball? Or pull up stakes for the ’burbs, only to try to forget you’re in the ’burbs? What you need is a house—multiple bedrooms with a touch of greenery that you can call a yard, a town with good schools and no crime that still feels like you’re in the city. Enter Jenkintown (factoid: hometown of Bradley Cooper), the inner ’burb with the urban flavor, where the median home is a steal at $160,000 (which can mitigate the higher-than-average tax rate). The housing stock does tend to skew a bit older (character!), so the same $250K you’ll pay for that 800-square-foot cement-fronted one-bedroom “condo” in Queen Village will get you a three-bed, two-bath house with almost three times the space and an actual yard. Yes, you’re going to take a hit when it comes to good restaurants, bars, clubs, nightlife and cultural diversions (the exception being the awesome, member-supported Hiway movie theater, right there on Old York Road), but you’re two roads and 10 miles away from Center City—still close enough to make the occasional kickball game.
School district: Unionville-Chadds Ford
SAT scores: 573 math / 591 reading / 567 writing
Crime rate: Zero violent crimes per 1,000; 2.08 nonviolent per 1,000
Median home price: $390,000
If you’ve ever seen one of those TV commercials where the mom, the dad and the two kids laugh and smile as they zoom around on bicycles or go hiking or just generally emphasize your personal couch-potato-ness by being relentlessly active, you may have wondered: Where are people like that? The answer: East Marlborough, where we’re surprised they don’t make you do drills to obtain a mortgage. As local father-of-three and relentless recreationist Brian Ladd describes it, EM is “a small, quiet rural community that’s also full of activity and life.” With almost a quarter of its population under age 18, the Chester County township caters to its kids, who mostly attend schools in the top-achieving Unionville-Chadds Ford district and fill the area’s teeming rec-sports leagues. But parents don’t just cheer on the sidelines: Families cruise the township’s 4,000 open acres on foot or bike, while the Don and Betty Draper set plays golf and tennis at the sleek Kennett Square Golf and Country Club. While you’ll find typical community-calendar fare (5K’s, art shows, a famed mushroom festival), the hamlet’s proximity to family-fave Longwood Gardens and its historic pedigree (a Revolutionary War battleground, several stops on the Underground Railroad) make it a bucolic-yet-active (and safe, with one of the lowest crime rates anywhere) alternative for child-rearing. And the milkshakes at Landhope Farms entice at any age.
Text and Photography courtesy of Philadelphia Magazine – October 2011
Thanks for reading,