Later this spring, a few hundred students will become the first graduates of a pioneering group of schools in North Carolina that for the last four years have focused on science, technology, engineering and math – fields which taken together are commonly referred to as STEM.

Three years of data compiled by the North Carolina New Schools Project (NCNSP) shows promising evidence that STEM schools are succeeding in reducing dropout rates and boosting test scores by engaging students in learning designed to develop the kinds of skills considered keys for success in college and career.

The 2009-10 performance indicators show that North Carolina STEM schools are leading in certain areas when compared to other North Carolina high schools, according to NCNSP.

These schools last year had a combined dropout rate of 1.5 percent – less than half North Carolina’s overall rate of 3.75 percent – and the percentage of students passing End-of-Course exams increased twice as much as the state as a whole.

And, while STEM schools trailed the rest of the state by 18 points in 2009 on that “composite” passing rate, they narrowed that gap in 2010 to less than 8 points.

“The state’s new STEM schools are on the leading edge of a shift in education in North Carolina and nationwide that raises the importance of mastering math and science skills not just for the few, but for the many,” said Tony Habit, president of the NCNSP, a public-private school development organization supporting the STEM schools and other innovative models across the state.

Now, under the state’s $400 million federal Race to the Top grant, NCNSP is developing networks of STEM schools oriented to four distinct career themes: health and life sciences, energy and sustainability, biotechnology and agriscience, and aerospace.

These themes also reflect some of the recommendations made by the North Carolina Joining Our Businesses and Schools (JOBS) Commission to the N.C. General Assembly last month. Read post.

Those schools will serve every region in the state, as a critical investment for economic development, and as a doorway to promising futures for students whose options too often have been limited by geography and poverty.

The original nine STEM schools graduating their first class this year were opened on existing high school campuses that a judge had threatened to close because of far-reaching academic failure.

The schools also benefit from support provided by a number of other partners, including the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, The Science House at N.C. State University, Core-Plus Mathematics, and the Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM (TIES).

Get the latest news alerts: Follow WRAL Tech Wire at Twitter.