Educators call the freshman year of high school “Year 9,” and, said Associate Principal Maurice Swinney, who oversees St. Amant High School’s freshman class, it’s a monumental time in the lives of all students.

“Year 9 is one of the most critical in determining success in school, and in life,” Swinney told a roomful of parents who’d just dropped off their incoming freshmen for orientation at the school’s gym.

If students are at risk for dropping out, this is the year they’ll most likely do it. That’s one reason the Freshman Academies were created, he said.

Freshman Academies are a school within the high school, St. Amant Principal Mia Edwards said, and it’s the fifth year they’ve been a part of every high school campus in Ascension Parish Public schools. The academies are a way to ease the often-jarring transition from the well-tended middle school classes to the hectic high school schedule.

“Freshman Academy focuses on their needs — academically, socially, personally,” Swinney said. “Year 9 is not a scary beast. We want every student to belong, and ninth grade is about figuring out what works for each student.”

The academy didn’t exist when Kadee Dupuis came to St. Amant High.

“I just got thrown in when I was a freshman,” said Kadee Dupuis, who graduated from St. Amant in 2006, and now teaches freshman English there. “And I came from Lake (Middle School), which is one of the smaller schools.”

Dupuis organized this year’s freshman orientation, also known as Swampfest, held Friday at the school, at which students got a chance to get their bearings before the pressure of school kicked in.

Dupuis leads the school’s Gator to Gator program, a peer mentoring program that helps normalize the high school transition.

On Friday, her student mentors — made up of sophomores, juniors and seniors chosen in a highly competitive process — welcomed nervous freshmen to the Gold Dome at St. Amant High School, guiding them under a balloon-covered archway and into their seats in the gym’s bleachers.

After playing a few games as a group, learning some chants and cheers that will come in handy at pep rallies later in the year, the freshmen split up into smaller groups.

Inside the freshman classrooms, the groups played more games to learn each others’ names, and then played still more games to learn a little about each other.

Allen Hernandez led Group 20 in a question and answer exercise. Some questions were more bizarre, like “Would you rather be sucked up by a tornado or swallowed by a blue whale?”

Others — What’s a talent you wish you had? If you could live in another country, which one would you pick, and is there anything you want to change about yourself? — gave the students a chance to let their personalities shine through.

Hernandez and peer mentors Taylor Poche and Jordan Hartman went through the freshman survival guide — called What Every Freshman Should Know.

It included a map, which Hernandez pointed out, has no second floor and no pool. Apparently, Hernandez said, many freshman have fallen prey to this non-existent redirection from their upperclassmen.

“And have you seen how small those lockers are? No one is going to stuff you into a locker, so don’t worry about that,” Hernandez said.

The map did include vital information like the location of the pizza line at lunch.

“Don’t call it the cafetorium,” Hernandez said. “Call it the commons.”

And if your teacher has duty at lunch, that means your class will be first in the lunch line.

Also Gator Gold — the credits students earn to exchange for “the good candy” and the privilege to wear jeans on certain days — are referred to as “tokens” in high school.

“A lot of people have heard you’ll lose all your middle school friends in high school,” Hernandez said.

“You may lose some. People may change, but it’s OK. You will have more people around in high school, and you are more likely to find people who are like you,” he said, which led to another piece of advice from the peer leaders. Make friends, as soon as possible. Don’t mess up your grades your freshman year.

“If you’ve ever heard that if you come to class without a pencil, your teacher won’t give you a pencil,” Hernandez said, don’t believe every scary thing you hear. “Teachers are not mean. They will help you.”

Unless, that is, you get caught using your cellphone in class. That, he said, will get you Saturday detention.