At Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School, eighth grade is a landmark year: the eighth-grade dance, the last year of middle school, the high school prep courses and, for most students, the year when they have to face ROPES.
ROPES - or Rite of Passage Experience - is a year-long project assigned to all eighth graders in Dzantik'i Heeni's Alder, Hemlock, and Cedar Houses. It involves shadowing a professional in the career field of the student's choice - anything from learning to dance to building a sailboat. Students can choose a topic that is a true passion.
"I think it's a culmination of what we've been teaching for three years in middle school," said Dawn Momblow, a third-year seventh/eighth-grade math and science teacher in Alder House. "They're learning how to take responsibility for their own education, they have to prepare using good work habits, they have to be community contributors and they have to really value this. ... They will get out of it what they put into it, so it's testing all those skills we teach in middle school, and they have to do an independent project to show they have those skills."
"It's not so much the project that you choose that defines who you are, it's more how you deal with the project and the process of it," said Paula Savikko, who taught at Dzantik'i Heeni for 10 years and is a ROPES veteran. "It's more like you find out who you are by the way you accept the problems that you encounter, and the way you talk with adults and your choices."
Though three houses participate now, originally Alder was the only one. It all started 10 years ago, when three teachers sat down and thought about how the children of this community didn't have a rite of passage in their lifetime, so they decided to create one. At first only a few students participated, and the next year a few more, and eventually everyone was required. Alder gained the name, "the project house." A couple of years later, Hemlock joined in, and this year Cedar became a ROPES house. The last house - Spruce - may not be far behind.
What makes this project so great that 75 percent of the eighth-grade population at Dzantik'i Heeni partakes?
"I think what you learn with ROPES is that there are so many different talents that kids have." Momblow said. "I didn't know that some of my students were musicians, they didn't know that they were musicians, but then they would choose guitar, and learn how to play the guitar and in the end have this really wonderful hobby. ... Kids can excel at so many different things, if they are given the opportunity to follow a passion, and through this project they get a chance to explore different things they ... may not have done unless they were kind of pushed to do this project."
Though it's obvious students can learn better when doing something they enjoy, they also acquire many skills that will help them in future jobs and in life in general.
"When you start talking about confidence, that leads into everything," Savikko said. "When you're taking risks, that's everything and empowering yourself to try and realize that the choices that you make are yours. There are a lot of things you can't make choices about that are set by society - you have to get certain grades to get into certain schools (and) there are a lot of structural rules that you can't change, but I think at the same time, if you know you want something and you can set goals and you know how to problem-solve, those are things that power you and help you get what you want in life."
"Independence," said Lance Northcutt, another third-year Alder House teacher. "Organization, a sense of a timeline, when things need to be done. You can't just leave them hanging out around there and just hoping they'll get done; you have get them done yourself. Those are the biggest things, just self-motivation, self-directed skills."
ROPES students must get things done by the end of May, when they give a presentation at Chapel by the Lake. They show three members of the community - usually strangers - what they have accomplished in their eighth-grade year and, hopefully, what their rite of passage was.
Savikko calls it "The Grand Conversation," and many students don't know exactly what their rite of passage was "until they're in the chapel presenting."
Northcutt said he worries about some students, but is usually very proud of their work when they finally finish.
"Almost everybody pulls it out and does a great job," Northcutt said. "But some of that you don't see until two weeks before, and you're still not sure if they're on track, but they do fantastic."
ROPES students are faced with habits to break, skills to learn and fears to conquer.
"It's your responsibility, you're learning how to show up on time, make appointments, make sure you're professional on the telephone - those are all life skills that go beyond the classroom," Momblow said. "We're opening doors."
Shannon Smith is an eighth-grade student at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School. She is using her ROPES project to learn more about journalism and photography.