GONZALES - After the holidays, ninth-graders at two Ascension Parish high schools will be leaving behind temporary classrooms to finish their school year in brand new, two-story Freshman Academy buildings on campus.
The freshmen at East Ascension and Dutchtown high schools will head to their new classrooms when classes resume on Jan. 8.
Students at both schools have watched the buildings go up since construction began on both sites in the first quarter of 2016.
"I think they're thrilled to be moving in," said Randy Loving, Dutchtown High's associate principal for the Freshman Academy.
The opening of the two new freshman academies completes a massive plan approved by the School Board in 2014 to address overcrowding at the district's three east-bank high schools.
The third east-bank high school, St. Amant High, saw its Freshman Academy open in February in time to help students return to the flood-damaged campus, where temporary classroom buildings were also set up.
Restoration work at St. Amant High will begin soon; the School Board awarded the bid for the project earlier in December.
The Ascension school district has had a Freshman Academy program at each of its four high schools — three on the east bank and one on the west bank — for several years, with freshmen having the same group of teachers throughout the day, intervention for those struggling and their own associate principal.
On the east bank, that program is now going into classroom buildings to get freshmen out of temporary buildings.
The funds for the three east-bank freshman academy projects came from bond money, after voters approved the extension of a property tax in 2009, as well as a surplus of sales tax revenues generated in 2013 and 2014, mostly from the expansion of the CF Industries plant in Donaldsonville.
"It's just monumental evidence of how this community wants to continue to provide quality education for our students," Superintendent David Alexander said.
With the three freshman academies each designed to serve approximately 600 ninth-graders, the school district aims to have its three east-bank high schools able to serve a total student population of 2,200 students.
The school closest to that figure now is Dutchtown High with 2,100 students. East Ascension is at 1,800 students and St. Amant has 2,000.
The next big effort to address overcrowding at the high school level on the east bank will be site planning for a new high school in Prairieville. Funds for construction, however, are not yet in place.
The $12.9 million freshman academy project at East Ascension High is two-fold: It includes a 39,000-square-foot, free-standing classroom building, as well as a a 38,000-square-foot combined cafeteria and auditorium for use by the entire student body.
A new, larger cafeteria was needed at the school, built in 1965 and the oldest school building still in use in the district, school officials said.
At Dutchtown High, one of the district's newer schools, built in 2002, the $7.4 million freshman academy includes a 39,000-square-foot, ninth-grade classroom wing that ties into the existing school building, as well as a 1,500-square-foot addition, completed last year, to the school's cafeteria.
At both high schools, ninth-graders will have their core classes in the new Freshman Academies, but will continue to have their electives and physical education classes in the main school buildings, along with students in the higher grades.
Freshmen will continue to receive the features of the Freshman Academy program and "still feel like they're in high school," Alexander said.