Supervisor Rita Tice handed the small group of students maps and a questionnaire, matched them in pairs and sent them down the hallways of Middle Township High School.

“Look where you are,” she told them. “See what wing you are in.”

Giggling, they wandered around, locating the nurses office, guidance and the cafeteria, and checked them off on their sheets.

“This has been good for learning our way around the school,” said Kevin Keyes, 14, of Dennis Township, who had only been at the school once before.

The first days of high school can be nerve-wracking. Most high schools do a freshmen orientation before school starts, but some are expanding it to a longer voluntary program designed to prepare students not just for classes, but for their future.

The “freshmen experience” week at Middle Township High School was one of several similar programs at area schools. Students at Oakcrest High School in Mays Landing and Cedar Creek High School in Egg Harbor City also spent a week learning about their school and their role in it.

“It’s really a transition program,” Greater Egg Harbor Regional supervisor Margaret Doran said. “It focuses on academics, but also on life skills and study skills they will need.”

She said since students come from several K-8 districts, they work with the sending districts to identify students who might benefit from the program. A few hundred students were invited; about 150 participated.

At Hammonton High School, a Summer Science program brought incoming freshmen to the high school for a special biology program to prepare them for more advanced honors classes.

“They’re doing a lot of labs,” teacher Judy Shaner said as students dissected owl pellets to learn what owls eat. “The honors program in high school is demanding. Here they learn how to write lab reports, learn what my expectations are, and they get acclimated to coming to the high school.”

This is the fifth year for the Hammonton program, which has grown from 12 to 30 students. Many come from smaller sending districts such as Folsom or Waterford Township, and the class gives them a chance to meet new classmates.

“They are so excited to use the equipment, and it’s nice to see them excited,” Shaner said. Since there are no grades, there is no fear of mistakes and with no other distractions they can just focus on the joy of science.

Eric Wendt, 14, of Hammonton, examined the skull he had excavated from his owl pellet (which is regurgitated through the mouth and can be large), and thought it matched a rat’s skull on his chart.

“This is one of the weirder experiences I’ve had,” he said. “I can’t wait to dissect a frog.”

Ema Azuonwo, 13, of the Atco section of Waterford Township, admitted she doesn’t like getting up early to come to school, but said she is enjoying the program.

At Middle Township, students came for three days of seminars that included an overview of the school, goal setting, behavioral and academic expectations, tours of the building, and tips about lockers, busing and cafeteria procedures. Students were asked to write down questions, and most were worried about getting lost or finding the bathrooms.

A couple admitted they were afraid they were not ready for high school and might fail. Another asked about the school’s “sunglasses policy.”

Tice said students who have been in the same often small school for the last eight years often don’t realize that rules change in high school.

“They have to realize that starting now, grades accumulate. Failing a class in freshman year matters. You don’t just get to start over every year.”

Principal Richard Falletta talked students through academic expectations and was pleased to see most students do want to attend college. He talked about how many credits they needed to graduate, taking the state graduation test, and building a good grade-point average.

On Friday, staff walked all 74 students through their schedules so they would know what to expect on the first day of school. Tice said freshmen hear the rumors about being stuffed into lockers, but that just doesn’t happen.

“The worst that will happen is that an upperclassman will tell them room 203 is on the second floor,” she said, noting the high school only has one level.

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