In southern Marin County, as in almost anywhere, your experience with public education is in large part driven by where you live. Where this part of Marin differs from other parts of the country, though, is that almost anywhere where you choose to live in Tiburon, Belvedere and Mill Valley will have access to highly-rated public schools, while those choosing to put down roots in Sausalito will find more challenges. And if that isn’t enough, there is the private school option: 27 independent or parochial K-8 schools and six likewise high schools are located in Marin County.

Southern Marin’s public districts are a who’s who of the area’s top schools. The Mill Valley District, which is southern Marin’s largest, includes Mill Valley Middle School, a four-time California Distinguished School, and five K-5 campuses — Park, Old Mill, Edna McGuire, Strawberry Point and Tamalpais Valley that each rated 10/10 on GreatSchools.org. Every school in the Mill Valley district had an Academic Performance Index (API) of 930 or higher for 2013 (2013 was the last year to track API; the state is presently determining a new system of rating school performance).

One word of caution: Mill Valley is an open enrollment district with wait lists at almost every school, thanks to a surge in student population that began in 2005. This would be more daunting were Mill Valley’s schools not so excellent across the board. You can’t lose in Mill Valley, whose high school-age students attend Tamalpais High School, where almost 80 percent of graduates emerge having satisfied their eligibility requirements for Cal State and UC campuses. Intra-district transfers for high school students are also available and feasible, giving students in grades 9 through 12 the option of attending Tamalpais, Redwood or Sir Francis Drake High Schools.

As good as schools are in Mill Valley, their reputation is at least equaled by the 1,500-student Reed Union School District, serving Tiburon and Belvedere (and part of Corte Madera). Reed is comprised of three campuses, Reed School (kindergarten through second grade), Bel Aire (grades three through five) and Del Mar Middle School. Reed’s lofty reputation (API scores of 964, 940 and 960, respectively and 10/10s across the board on GreatSchools.org.) exceeds even that of Mill Valley. As in Mill Valley, district parents’ generosity with time and resources has allowed Reed to offer many of the extras — small class sizes, speech and language therapists, on-site psychologists, learning specialists, P.E. and art teachers — that sadly have become endangered species in many California public districts. Students living in Tiburon and Belvedere continue on to Redwood High School in the Tam Union District. As noted above, transfers are possible within high schools in the district.

This brings us to the Sausalito School District, which serves students in Sausalito and unincorporated Marin City and has historically struggled despite per-student spending that is more than twice the state average. School options in Sausalito are limited to K-8 Bayside/Martin Luther King Academy, which has a most recent API score of 735 and a GreatSchools rating of 3/10 and the Willow Creek Academy, a public K-8 charter school with a GreatSchools rating of 7/10 and API score of 795, is independently operated in Sausalito. MLK was until recently only a middle school, but it merged with K-5 Bayside in 2013.

Willow Creek was founded in 2001 as a response to a growing trend: Sausalito parents opting out of public schools and choosing private education for their children. Unfortunately, that phenomenon has continued as Sausalito schools have struggled. The district is presently looking to hire a new superintendent to replace its previous one, who resigned in February after two years as a part-time administrator. Sausalito’s high school students are assigned to Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley.

Southern Marin County offers very distinct options for families with school-age children — very strong districts and districts looking to stabilize and improve the quality of their offerings. As always, when integrating schools into a home search, potential homebuyers should take their cues from their children and do their homework before making any final decisions.