Nearly three in four Columbus high school students graduated last year, pushing the district to its highest graduation rate on record. At the very least, the 73.9 percent rate is the highest in the past 12 years and up 3.3 percentage points from the year before. It's quite a climb from 2001, when less than 55 percent of Columbus students collected a diploma.

The district still doesn't meet the state requirement that 90 percent of students complete high school, a goal Superintendent Gene Harris has set for 2012. "I'm really excited about the 73.9," Harris said. "It shows we have
some of the right things in place ... but we still have too-large a percentage -- over a quarter of our children -- who aren't graduating on time. And that's too much for me."

Columbus Education Association President Rhonda Johnson said the district's recent successes make her believe 90 percent isn't a pipe dream. "If you asked the question five years ago, people would have said no. If
you ask me now 'Is 90 percent attainable?' it certainly is," she said.

The Ohio Department of Education provided new graduation rates for school districts last month. They were not available after spring graduation because some students complete requirements over the summer.

Columbus City Schools' success comes in a year when more than half of central Ohio's 49 districts lost ground. The graduation rate in Westerville schools, for example, dropped about 4 percentage points to 91.9 percent.
South-Western schools went from being within a hairsbreadth of the state standard down to 87 percent. And Heath schools in Licking County went from near perfect to 93.7 percent. These rates, which districts can contest
before new state report cards are released, show whether they are producing adults ready for college or work.

The state had planned to start calculating graduation rates differently, using a model that would have given schools credit only for on-time graduations. But it postponed that move when the federal government announced
that it would require a common graduation-rate calculation in a few years. "To avoid the confusion, we pulled back from that," Ohio Department of Education spokesman Scott Blake said. The state will begin using the federal
version in 2010 or 2011, he said. Officials have said they expect rates to drop with the new model, at least in the first couple of years it is used.

Under the current model, several local districts fared well. Groveport Madison schools met the 90 percent standard for the first time since 2001, according to the state's numbers. Whitehall continued a three-year streak of
meeting that bar.

London schools in Madison County made a jump of nearly 8 percentage points -- the largest gain in the region -- to 92.1 percent. "We're graduating a lot of kids who previously would have been dropping out of school,"
said Superintendent D. Steven Allen, whose district has focused more on at-risk students.

Groveport Madison plans to begin a dropout-focused program next school year, Superintendent H. Scott McKenzie said. "We'll do more intensive work with those kids, maybe have a lower pupil-teacher ratio, give them a
little TLC and get them where they need to be," he said.

Columbus' programs for at-risk students include one to help students catch up on credits and another with scouting groups. Harris said students also will benefit from plans to add an hour back to the school day, buy new
textbooks and improve technology next school year. "But obviously, as the graduation rate goes up, it gets to be more difficult, and we understand that," the superintendent said. "We have to continue to find new strategies ...
for our students who might be having a tougher time getting to that pinnacle."