New campus buildings coming to three Ascension Parish public high schools will be dedicated solely to students in ninth grade, the year educators say is the most critical of high school.

At each school — St. Amant High, Dutchtown High and East Ascension High, all on the parish’s east bank — the new building will bear the name Freshman Academy.

The buildings will provide a home for the http://theadvocate.com/home/557831-79/freshmen-get-help-dealing-for.html">Freshman Academy program the school district put into place eight years ago at the district’s high schools. The program features team teaching, class scheduling that puts students with the same group of teachers throughout the day, enrichment and intervention for students who are struggling. At each high school, the Freshman Academy program also has its own associate principal.

“When you’re talking about high school, the ninth grade has been historically identified as the most challenging year,” said Mel Riddile, associate director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Virginia.

The ninth grade poses social, emotional and academic challenges for students in what is the largest class of grade school, from kindergarten through 12th grade, he said.

The number of students having to repeat a grade also is the highest in ninth grade, Riddile said.

“When students repeat the ninth grade, they have a 15 percent chance of graduating,” he said.

“You want kids to be successful their first year of high school,” said Riddile, who applauded Ascension’s Freshman Academy program. “These schools are doing the right thing by investing in the ninth grade.”

The total cost of the school district’s construction projects is approximately $46 million, with the first construction bid going out in January.

The breakdown for each project is:

$17 million at East Ascension High, where a new cafeteria and kitchen also will be built. Funds are coming from a bond approved by voters in 2009 and tax revenues.

$16.2 million at St. Amant High, which also will get a new cafeteria and kitchen. Funds also are coming from a 2009 bond issue and tax revenues.

$12.8 million at Dutchtown High, which will get modifications to its cafeteria. Funds are coming from tax revenues.

The ambitious construction program also is expected to address overcrowding at the three high schools, each with a student population of about 2,000.

Several years ago, the school district had set a high school enrollment goal of 1,750, said Chad Lynch, planning and construction director.

With the steady growth of the parish, however, the School Board now plans, with the addition of the Freshman Academy buildings, to support 2,200 students at the three east bank high schools. Each of the new Freshman Academy buildings will serve 600 students.

The district, which has about 21,000 students, expects to build a fourth high school on the parish’s east bank in future years.

The district’s fourth high school, Donaldsonville High, a west bank school with about 450 students, also has a Freshman Academy program in place; however, because overcrowding isn’t an issue, the school is not scheduled for a ninth-grade classroom building at this time.

At 48,000 square feet and two stories high, each new Freshman Academy will have 20 classrooms located in five pods. Four of the pods will be dedicated to English, math, science and social studies, with each pod having its own breakout space. The fifth pod will be for elective courses. The new buildings will have covered walkways connected to the main school buildings.

The new cafeteria to be built at the two oldest of the three schools — East Ascension, which opened in 1965, and St. Amant, which opened in 1976 — will feature six serving lines and a food court style with a hot line, cold line, sandwiches and more, Lynch said. At both of the schools, the old cafeterias will be converted to new classroom space.

The cafeteria at Dutchtown High, which opened in 2003, will be renovated to provide the same six serving lines and expanded food offerings, as well as more storage space.

Lynch said he and his staff and the architects have worked to “match and enhance existing materials and aesthetics” at the three schools.

“I want all of them, when we add them, to look like they were always there,” he said.

The construction bid for St. Amant High will be the first to go out, in January, with the bids for the other two school projects to go out over the following four months. Lynch said the order of the construction projects at East Ascension and Dutchtown is still to be decided. Expected completion dates haven’t been set yet.

Lauren Avery, the associate principal of the Freshman Academy at East Ascension High, said the academy’s teachers “create a setting that’s still a little similar to middle school.”

Currently, ninth-grade classrooms at East Ascension are located in temporary buildings, with common, covered walkways.

“We’re thrilled about the new building,” she said. “It will allow us to all be in one area together.”

Carli Francois, principal of Dutchtown High, said the Freshman Academy program works hard to help ninth-graders get acclimated to high school and to retain them for 10th grade.

“The building is going to be huge; right now, a lot of Freshman Academy classes are in T-buildings,” she said. “Having this building, dedicating this beautiful new facility to them, it’s symbolic — ‘You’re a special part of this campus,’ ” Francois said.

Follow Ellyn Courvillion on Twitter, @EllynCouvillion.