Looks like the Northern Virginia area is a great place to go to high school. Fairfax County and Prince William County are nation leaders in graduation rates.

This is according to Education Week’s recent “Diplomas Count 2011: Beyond High School, Before Baccalaureate” report.

The rates come from 2008 data collected in the nation’s 50 largest school systems. Fairfax came in second with a graduation rate of 85.1 percent. Prince William County is a little further down, but still relatively high, at spot 17. It had a graduation rate of 68.4 percent.

Unfortunately, that is a fall in ranking for Prince William County. It was previously in 15th place. Also, that puts Prince William County below the national graduation rate of 72 percent. But that percentage is unusually high. Not since the 1980s has the national average been this good.

That’s good news for a country eager for evidence of education improvement, according to one expert quoted in the Washington Examiner article about the report.

“Just as Americans have been following the stock market and employment reports for signs of an economic turnaround, education watchers have been on the lookout for improving graduation rates for the better part of a decade,” said Christopher Swanson, vice president of Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit that publishes Education Week. “It looks like we are finally seeing strong signs of a broad-based educational recovery, which we hope will gain further momentum.”

It may be premature to celebrate, however. The recession has led to deep cuts at many schools. It’s possible that graduation rates at some of the systems on the list have fallen since 2008. Plus the contrast between Prince William County and the national average show that there is a lot of work still to be done.

The challenge going forward is how to maintain and improve graduation rates with fewer resources. Though the recession is technically over, its effects still weigh heavily on school systems. It is unclear how long schools will be beleaguered by budget shortfalls or whether they will eventually rebound to previous levels of funding.

It’s possible that a long-term strategy for surviving on less is needed.

In the meantime, Fairfax County should be riding high on its ranking while taking steps to try and kick Montgomery County out of the top spot.

Check out this press release for more information about the Education Week rankings.