(MONEY Magazine) – Ask educators to name the nation's top public school systems, and you're likely to get a familiar list of tony suburban districts such as New Trier on Chicago's North Shore; Newton, west of Boston; and Scarsdale, north of New York City. Unfortunately, buying a house in one of those gold-plated places takes the kind of bucks only the really rich can swing. In Scarsdale, for example, the median-priced home sells for a stunning $500,000.

But families of more modest means don't have to settle for second-rate public schools. Indeed, there are hundreds of superb but lesser-known school systems that serve major metropolitan areas, suburbs and small towns where real estate prices won't take your breath away. In this ground-breaking survey, Money identifies 100 such districts (see the table on pages 112 and 113) within commuting distance--no more than 45 to 50 minutes one way--of the nation's 80 most populous metro areas. If you're already living in one of these communities, congratulations. If you're not but are thinking of moving either within your metro area or to a different part of the country, you'll find our list useful. And even if you plan to stay put, you can employ our findings about what makes a district strong to improve your own school system.

To find these best-value schools, we enlisted the aid of SchoolMatch (800-992-5323), a company in Columbus, Ohio (http://ppshost.schoolmatch.com/) that helps parents select the right schools for their children. SchoolMatch searched its database of the nation's 16,665 public school systems for those that rate high academically and are in communities that offer reasonably priced housing. Specifically, the school systems on our list rank in the top 20% of all systems academically, based on their students' performance on the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) and American College Testing Program's Assessment (ACT) college entrance examinations and on the number of National Merit scholars the districts have produced over the past five years. (The ACT is the predominant college entrance exam in 27 states; the SAT is more popular in 23 states and the District of Columbia.) Also, average residential property values in the great majority of the districts on our list are below those in the top 15% most expensive districts nationwide. To get to 100, however, we had to include 18 districts in which home values are above the top 15% but below the top 10%. Still, we found plenty of bargains. In 45 of our districts, you can buy a typical home for less than the U.S. median of $86,529.

Some large metro areas--notably Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami and Washington, D.C.--didn't make our list. Most offer high-quality public education, says SchoolMatch president William Bainbridge, but only in the most expensive suburbs. For a few of these areas, including Miami, Bainbridge must recommend private schools to parents who demand academic excellence. And in Las Vegas, one of the nation's fastest-growing locales, he cannot even recommend a top-performing private school. His dour advice: "Don't move there if you have school-age children."

The top-scoring districts on our list compare favorably with selective private prep schools. Last year, for example, the Cincinnati suburb of Mariemont boasted an average SAT score of 1,164 out of a possible 1,600, which is 254 points above the 910 national average. And the college town of Ann Arbor averaged 23.8 out of a possible 36 on the ACT, well above the 20.8 national average.

What do schools like those two and the other 98 winners on our list have in common? To find out, six Money reporters and 24 correspondents interviewed more than 300 administrators, teachers and parents across the nation. With the help of TGE Demographics of Honeoye Falls, N.Y., a consulting firm, we also examined census data on race, poverty rates, income, parental education and family composition for each of the districts.

Our findings are in line with educational research showing that most top-performing school districts have students whose well-educated parents enjoy comfortable incomes. Indeed, in 93 communities, the median family income of those who send their children to public school in the districts on our list exceeds the national median of $33,087. Still, these places aren't highly affluent; in nearly three-quarters of the districts, median family income falls below $50,000. In 76 communities, the percentage of parents who have completed four or more years of college exceeds the national average of 22%.

But, of course, the schools on our list must educate children from all families--average, affluent and disadvantaged. These schools are often able to succeed because they have overcome problems spawned by local poverty. Among our findings:

Double-digit poverty rates don't depress achievement. In 38 of our districts, at least 10% of all students live below the poverty line, now $15,141 for a family of four. Kingsport, Tenn., near Johnson City, has the highest poverty rate of the 100-30%-yet sends 75% of its graduates to college or technical school and last year scored a lofty 23.2 on the ACT.

Diversity does not discourage excellence. Today 34% of public school students are minorities, a fact that's sometimes used by educators to explain poor academic results. But there are 21 districts on our list with student bodies that are at least 20% minority, and none need to make excuses about performance. Indeed, one district, Spartanburg 7 in South Carolina, is mostly minority (53%), yet its high school is the only public high school in the nation to have won the U.S. Department of Education's Blue Ribbon award for educational excellence three times.

Kids don't have to come from nuclear families to succeed. In 20 of our districts, the number of school-age kids living with single mothers meets or exceeds the national average of 23%.

Money isn't everything. Though a few of our districts are big spenders--Port Jefferson, a Long Island suburb of New York City, lavishes $17,703 on each student per year--only 39 spend more than the national average of $6,300 per student. And only 47 spend more than their state averages.

If high-achieving school systems aren't all small, suburban, free-spending or white, how can you pick them out of the crowd? Here's what to look for:

Widespread community support for public education. Few of the administrators and teachers we interviewed complained about voters turning down school budgets or bond issues. Many districts also enjoy additional financial support from private educational foundations that residents have established to raise money for extras like additional computers and software in the classrooms or elementary school music programs.

Local businesses and colleges also support these schools by forming partnerships with them. For example, South Carolina's Spartanburg 7 draws on the expertise of five local colleges, including Spartanburg Technical College, which helped the district develop an apprenticeship program for vocational students.

The bottom line: If a community is civic-minded and economically stable with viable businesses, it probably has academically sound schools. "Show me a good school system, and I'll show you a good community," says superintendent Melvin E. Rosier of the Lampeter/Strasburg district near Lancaster, Pa. "Show me a troubled school system, and I'll show you a troubled community. They're that closely related."

Involved parents. Thomas Giblin is superintendent of the excellent Guilford school system near New Haven. When he took the job seven years ago, he says, "I'd visit a school and see two or three adults in a classroom. It took me a couple of years to figure out who the teachers were and who the parent volunteers were." All of the districts in our top 100 reported similarly high levels of parental involvement. Moms and dads help out in classrooms, turn out in droves for parent-teacher conferences and even confer with administrators on curriculum changes.

Parental involvement increases with parents' educational and income levels, mainly because well-educated parents aren't intimidated by teachers or administrators. But the socioeconomically diverse districts on our list work hard to make all parents feel welcome. In Holland, Mich., near Grand Rapids, for example, translators are on hand at parent-teacher conferences because 28% of the students are Hispanic. Most come from Mexican families who have been migrating to the area since the late 1940s to pick apples, cherries and grapes. "The school system allows all parents' voices to be heard," says the Rev. Andres Fierro, a Dutch Reform minister who moved to Michigan from Texas with his family when he was five and now has two sons in the Holland schools.

Enthusiastic teachers. School districts with a reputation for academic excellence, community support and parental involvement attract tons of job seekers, so administrators have their pick of the crop. Rapidly growing Williamson County near Nashville, for example, receives about 1,450 resumes for the 100 or so jobs it fills each year. Once teachers get into an exemplary district, they tend to stay put and hone their skills. So look for districts with low teacher turnover and many faculty members with master's degrees. Take Elida Giles, who has been teaching art history and history at Ann Arbor's Pioneer High for the past 26 years. She already has a master's degree in history from the University of Michigan but is working on a second, in art history. Named the 1991-92 Michigan teacher-scholar of the year by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Giles has won grants to study her subject in Florence and Paris.

The type of teacher who gets hired by a top district and gains tenure tends to be a real pro who comes in early or stays late if his or her students need extra help. As Josh Scharlinski, 12, a sixth-grader at South Side Middle School in Rockville Centre near New York City, puts it: "The teachers really care about the kids here."

Innovative but not trendy administrators. The districts on our list usually combine old and new teaching techniques instead of blindly following the latest educational fads. For instance, reading teachers still emphasize phonics but they assign award-winning children's books instead of dreary primers about Dick, Jane and Spot.

The best administrators keep up with technological change despite the high cost of computer hardware and software. For example, Hesston High, 25 miles north of Wichita, is one of about 5,100 schools nationwide that offer advanced courses by linking nearby districts to form an interactive television network, or ITV. Each of the schools in Hesston's network has an ITV room complete with cameras and monitors, microphones to allow students to answer questions posed by teachers in other schools and a fax to send homework assignments and tests back and forth.

In most of our districts, voters passed bond issues to wire the schools for computer networks. But superintendent Charles Parsons of Wadsworth, Ohio, near Akron, had to be more inventive. He was told it would cost $140,000 plus $12,250 a month in maintenance fees to connect computers at the district's seven schools in a fiber-optic network. That was too much for a frugal district that spends only $4,672 a year per pupil and has been proudly debt-free for 30 years. Then Parsons learned that Wadsworth's town-owned utility company was planning to install fiber-optic cable to monitor electric usage. Since many of the substations are near the schools, he asked the company for help. The utility wired up the schools for free and now helps out with maintenance. "It was a tremendous gift," says Parsons. "There's a real sense of cooperation in this town between the government and the schools."

High expectations for all students. Even the worst-performing school districts give lip service to high standards, but only the best offer special programs designed to elevate academic performance and set graduation requirements that exceed their states' mandates. For example, Lynbrook, N.Y., which sends 90% of its graduates to college and last year averaged 951 on the SAT, requires all sixth-graders except those in remedial classes to take Latin to improve their English vocabularies. "I can't say that's the reason why our SAT scores have remained high," says superintendent William Metkiff, "but it may be a contributing factor."

Successful districts also make efforts to bring disadvantaged kids up to speed. Consider, for example, Oak Ridge, Tenn., near Knoxville. The town that gave birth to the atomic bomb is still home to many engineers and other professionals. But 14% of the students are poor. To help them and other kids with special needs compete, Oak Ridge has, since 1965, operated a preschool for kids who are at risk of falling behind. The program pays off: When the district surveyed its kindergarten teachers in 1994, they reported that 84% of the preschool graduates were ready for their classes.

Is everything absolutely perfect in our top 100 districts? Of course not. None of our schools were free of alcohol or drug abuse or fights between students. Some big districts hire security guards to patrol hallways and handle discipline problems. Six have had to install metal detectors in schools or at special events like dances to prevent students from smuggling in weapons. But a handful of places are straight out of Andy Hardy. At Hesston High in Kansas, for instance, computers are not anchored to the tables, and most kids don't even have locks on their lockers.

Many of our districts are growing, which in the short term often means crowded classrooms and trailers serving as temporary facilities. Over the long haul, however, these districts should eventually be able to accommodate new students comfortably because they enjoy solid community support. Indeed, most of the growing districts we surveyed had passed bond issues to build new schools or add to existing buildings.

Fact is, people in many communities all across the U.S. care enough about their public schools to give them the financial and other support to become great. And that's good news for all parents who want to give their children the gift of an education that will not only prepare them for college and work but spark in them a lifelong love of learning.