The day Augusta's 14- and 15-year-olds thought about for years, the day they looked forward to and dreaded with equal energy.
The day they become - drum roll, please - high school students.
It's also the day they become the first freshmen in Richmond County forced to take an extra year of math before they can graduate with a college-prep diploma as the Class of 2001.
"It's kind of scary, too," said Joseph Hutto, a freshman at John S. Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School. "'Cause it's high school and completely different."
With school starting the 1997-98 term Monday in Richmond County, freshmen are preparing themselves for strange hallways, new challenges and their distinction as the first to be affected by new rules put in place during the summer by the state school board.
They also are the first to set their sights on a new "diploma with distinction" if they keep a "B" average and take two more classes than required.
The new school year brings changes for other grades as well, including school uniforms at five elementary schools, giving Augusta eight schools trying the outfits in a popular pilot program.
Some students will find themselves in portable classrooms for the first time Monday thanks to growing enrollments.
But freshmen face the biggest change with the new math requirement.
"I didn't really like it all that much," said Joseph, 14. "I guess I didn't really understand why we needed it, but I can't really do anything about it, I guess."
Joseph and his classmates were warned starting last spring they would have to take more math than older students did, with all eighth-grade guidance counselors trying to drill the extra responsibilities into the students' heads.
"So it should not be a surprise," said Carol Rountree, director of guidance and testing for Richmond County schools. "Whether it has really been something that they see as a reality or not is different, because, you know, ninth-graders are still maturing."
Each high school plans more orientation sessions with the freshmen in the coming days, even as they held welcoming workshops for the ninth-graders last week.
The system offers several choices for the new fourth year of math, from advanced algebra and trigonometry to calculus or statistics, depending on each student's diploma track.
An average student likely will take advanced algebra and trigonometry in the 12th grade, said Tonethia Frails, high school math coordinator for Richmond County schools.
Average students take Algebra I in ninth grade, geometry in 10th grade and Algebra II in 11th grade.
"The students make the decision, pretty much, in ninth grade," Ms. Frails said. "If you're going college prep, you have to have four maths, so you have to make that choice then."
Current sophomores, juniors and seniors are not required to take a senior-year math class.
Students aiming for a vocational diploma are encouraged - but not required - to take a fourth year of math under the new state rules.
Schools have just two diploma tracks - college and vocational - available now after the state school board eliminated the general diploma.
The new diploma with distinction is an addition to the college prep diploma, but fine-arts supporters have attacked it for fear the new seal will discourage students from taking band, chorus and arts classes. Those courses are not among those approved electives that students need to get the diploma with distinction.
Still, the chance to have an extra seal on his diploma proclaiming him a distinctive graduate was appealing to Joseph, who said he'll shoot for that goal.
"I would want it just for that little note on there because that might help you in the future, you know, like to get a better job," Joseph said.
But first comes Monday and the first walk into school as a high school student. Richmond County freshmen will be four-day veterans of high school by the time their Columbia County counterparts start school Friday, while Aiken County students head back to school Aug. 25.
Now that it's finally here, it's time to look forward to seeing old friends again and strive for better grades, Joseph said.
"It's going to be harder, I know," he said. His goal for the year is simple: "Trying something new and seeing what I can do. Just to buckle down a little bit more."