With their oldest son about to enter kindergarten, Suzanne and Jeff Farrington decided that it was time to move.
While most families with children choose a place to live based in part on available schools, it was the only factor for the Farringtons, who lived in Newfields, N.H., a small town on the southern border of the state near Exeter.
She’s a stay-at-home mother and he travels around New England for his job in technology sales, so they weren’t tied to an area by work. Suzanne Farrington said the Exeter-area school district is excellent, but it has 5,700 students and eventually would split up her sons – Jack, 5, Colin, 3, and Grant, 1 – into schools in three different towns.
“It was time to make a move and find a school system with an excellent reputation, and that was York,” she said.
In moving their family to York earlier this year, the Farringtons reflected a pattern that’s common in the United States.
“When kids become school age, lots of parents think about moving,” said Jed Kolko, chief economist for the real estate website Trulia.com. “Parents are much more likely to move when they’ve got young kids than when their kids are older, or than folks who don’t have kids at all.”
Kolko’s research team used data from the 2010 U.S. Census to examine how parents with young children are voting with their feet. They determined the “most attractive” school districts for each state and the entire country.
Because census data don’t allow tracking of individual families, Trulia calculated a ratio for each school district to compare the number of children ages 5 to 9 to the number of those from birth to age 4.
The national ratio is 1.01, meaning there are 101 5- to 9-year-olds for every 100 children younger than 4. School districts with ratios higher than that have families moving in, while lower ratios indicate more families moving out.
Among school districts of a significant size, York’s has the second-highest ratio in Maine at 1.53. Like York, other districts near the top have standardized test scores and are in relatively affluent communities, such as Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth and Scarborough.
The Maine school districts rated lower by Trulia’s measure include Maine’s larger urban districts, such as Augusta (0.87), Bangor (0.87), Portland (0.85) and Waterville (0.83).
Kolko said he decided to focus on districts with at least 500 children under age 10 in order to see broad patterns. By contrast, the decisions of just a few families can have a major impact on the results in smaller districts.
The communities in Maine with the highest and lowest ratios are among the state’s smallest and some have no schools of their own, such as Pleasant Ridge Plantation (6.00) at the high end and Bancroft and Dennistown Plantation (both 0.17) at the low end. Each of those communities has seven children younger than 10.
Among districts with at least 500 children in that age range, Cape Elizabeth has the highest ratio, at 1.62, and Kittery has the lowest, at 0.78.
Kolko said the school districts with high ratios tend to have affordable housing, defined as a lower cost per square foot, and lower population density, which can mean bigger houses and yards.
The researchers also saw a correlation with school district ratings on the website GreatSchools.com, which uses standardized test scores.
And the most attractive school districts also tend to have higher family incomes, Kolko said. Many academic studies have shown a strong relationship between family income and student achievement.
Although the Maine school districts rated as more attractive do fare better on standardized tests and other measures of achievement, the correlation isn’t perfect.
Kittery School Department, for example, rates the lowest of the larger school districts, but its high school graduation rate and most standardized test scores are above state averages. Kittery’s low ratio may be influenced by its location in York County, surrounded by districts with ratios above 1.0.
Greg Gosselin, owner of Gosselin Realty Group in York, said that reflects his experience. He said the schools in York, next door to Kittery, have such a strong reputation that he bought a home in York, even though he and his wife have no children.
“When we came and we looked at real estate 15 years ago, one of the first things I did was look at the school system, because I was buying a four-bedroom house, and I wanted to be sure that when I sell it, it’ll be perfect for a family,” he said.
Gosselin said school quality is first in many parents’ minds but affordability comes next, and that keeps some people out of communities like York.
Suzanne Farrington said she feels fortunate to be able to afford living in York, though it’s more expensive than where they lived before.
“Staying in New Hampshire, we obviously would have saved money in taxes living there, but we were honestly willing to sacrifice those taxes to make sure our kids had a good experience in the public school system,” she said.
Farrington said when she researched school districts, she looked at test scores but also talked to the Village Elementary School principal, students in the school system and recent graduates.
Now that Jack is in kindergarten, enjoying school and making friends, they plan to stay put.
“We moved a lot before we had kids, and we’re not moving again,” Farrington said. “We’re going to get the kids through school, and then we’ll see what’s next.”
Susan McMillan — 621-5645