— As 1990's pop group C&C Music Factory's "Everybody Dance Now" pumped through the speakers in Warhill High School's gym last Tuesday, about 80 of the schools' freshmen danced, skipped and power-walked around the basketball court in an impromptu game of musical chairs.

The game was a part of the James City high school's freshmen orientation program and designed as a team building exercise to allow the students — many of whom are coming to Warhill from different Williamsburg- James City County middle schools— to meet each other. With nearly two weeks left before the start of school, the excited teens were more than willing to participate in the activity.

For rising ninth-grader Caleb Beck, the day was a chance to get to know a female student tour guide he'd had his eye on all day.

"I asked her to the freshmen dance," said Caleb, 14, nonchalantly about the senior he thought was cute. "She told me no, but said she'd dance with me at the dance. I think that's pretty cool and I'm ok with that."

Asking out girls and going to school dances will be among the many firsts and challenges Caleb will face over the next nine months. He, like thousands of other Hampton Roads students, will begin his freshman year of high school next week, a year many school officials, educational studies and researchers say is one of the most difficult transitions in a student's K-12 educational career.

"Students are coming from a nurturing environment at the middle school level, and they're moving into a larger, more fast-paced environment where they're being expected to do more," said Sharmaine Grove, Warhill principal. "This can be a hard adjustment for a lot of students."

Research indicates that the road to dropping out begins in ninth grade. Studies have shown the freshman year is when students start experiencing failing grades in core subjects, mainly because of the increased workload, greater difficulty and more rigorously paced classes.

Grove said some students don't realize their ninth grade year is not the time to goof off because their grades and performance on Standards of Learning tests determine whether they graduate or what college they'll attend.

"There are some ninth-graders that get wrapped up into socializing and the new found freedom of high school and forget about academics," she said. "They don't realize the importance of academics until after the first semester, or at the end of the year when they've failed a class or SOL."

The state and federal government's most recent emphasis on school divisions' four-year high school graduation rate has made the freshmen year even more important, said Dianna Lindsay, district assistant superintendent for academic services.

For more than a year, Caleb's older brother, a senior at Walsingham Academy, and his parents and middle school teachers have been emphasizing the importance of his ninth grade year, the freshman said.

"Everyone's been telling me that it's going to be a lot more homework and that teachers aren't going to be as lenient as they were in middle school, which makes me a little nervous," Caleb said.

Caleb, who attended Toano Middle School, last year, struggled academically during eighth grade. He said he stopped doing homework after the first semester and lost interest in some classes because he didn't get along with teachers. Caleb ended the school year with grades ranging from A's to D's, but he's already vowed to do much better this school year.

"I'm going to straighten up and do what I have to do," he said.

Caleb said one of his major concerns about entering high school is that friends, girls, cell phones and iPods may distract him from his classes.

"I'm ADHD and get distracted very easily so this is one of the things I'm worried about," he said.

Caleb's mom Andrea Beck said she plans to get him evaluated once school starts to determine if he qualifies for extra help in high school because of his attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. She also plans to make sure that he does his homework and studies this year.

However, Beck said one her main fears for Caleb is the social influences he could encounter over the next four years.

"To me it's scarier to be teenager today, with all the violence, drugs and alcohol out there," said Beck, who attended Menchville High School in Newport News. "I mean it was there when I was in high school, but I think it's more accessible now because kids know more."