Lake Stevens students plunge into bigger watersBY AMY CODISPOTI | JOURNAL REPORTER Once a month, students from the Ocean Research College Academy (ORCA) head out on a boat to Possession Sound, where they spend the day gathering data and assessing multiple factors affecting the Sounds’ water quality.
These students, all of whom are juniors and seniors in high school, are the ones asking the questions in this classroom on the sea. They are also the ones finding the answers.
And Ardi Kveven, ORCA’s founder and director, wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Creative thinking and asking questions is the foundation of lifelong learning,” said Kveven.
In 2003, after teaching in Snohomish schools for 14 years, Kveven began feeling burned out.
Her passion hadn’t dwindled, but the management restrictions brought on by large classroom sizes left her feeling that there was more to education than what was allowed for in a traditional high school setting.
With a background in marine biology, Kveven was driven by a desire to teach science in an environment where the material was authentic and tangible, where students had the opportunity to bond with each other and teachers.
Her insatiable curiosity and marked enthusiasm led her to investigate how she could start her own interdisciplinary school, using the lens of ocean research as the foundation.
“At that time, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was putting a lot of money into reinventing comprehensive high schools,” she said. “They provided seed money to a start-up program, and then the program had to be self-sustaining after the end of the three-year grant period.”
She determined that Running Start, the state program, which funds high-school students to take college courses, would be the best vehicle for the program to be self-supported after the grant expired.
With her vision clearly in mind, she approached Everett Community College’s dean of science, her former professor Al Friedman, and presented her concept of an early college oceanography academy.
He supported her proposal and both were thrilled when, in July 2003, the Gates foundation approved the proposal giving the college $210,000 nearly four times more than the amount initially requested.
In 2004, the Ocean Research College Academy was officially started with 30 students and this year, 70 students are enrolled.
The very real research the students conduct in the academy has caught the attention of the science world and several universities.
One student’s research on why jellyfish glow in the dark led her to new scientific findings, as well as a full-ride scholarship to the University of Washington.
The program is a rigorous one, fulfilling 16 credits each quarter to meet the AA degree criteria and a significant amount of independent work.
“It’s not for everyone. High school is a very social time for kids.” Kveven said. “I marvel at the students who have left those traditional settings to take a risk. But, the payoff is worth it.”
Part of the payoff, she explained, is the freedom and ability to explore one’s passions even those not related to science.
“All the core subjects are covered including English and History,” Kveven said. “Only about half of our students major in science.”
Sean Williams, 17, of Lake Stevens has completed nearly two years of the ORCA program and will be graduating from high school in June with his AA, then transferring to the University of Washington as a junior. He plans to study cellular biology and is considering going on to medical school.
While he’s a bit nervous about the transition to university, Williams is confident that ORCA’s more than prepared him for what’s ahead.
“I don’t think I’d be who I am right now and been so ready for college if I hadn’t done this program,” he said. “The classes we take and the program itself is really rigorous, preparing us for an educational career pushing us to critically think and analyze things, which is really different than in high school.”
Williams feels he lucked out two years ago, having heard about the program only a week before the deadline. As he already had a keen interest in science, the program sounded like the perfect match. He immediately applied, tested and was accepted.
“One thing I really notice and appreciate about the school is the integrated classrooms and how close we are to our teachers,” Williams said. “We can ask our teachers anything. They don’t just give us answers but push us to a higher level. The work and research I’ve done is just phenomenal compared to what I could have done in four years in high school.”
Bethany Bleichner, a junior from Lake Stevens, is finishing up her first year in the program. Unlike Williams, she wasn’t especially interested in oceanography. She mostly wanted to get out the traditional high school scene, to be challenged educationally and to graduate from high school with an AA.
“At the beginning, I was actually kind of scared of fish,” she said with a laugh. “But now, I just love learning about all the different aspects of oceanography and seeing the stuff you can do with English and History and how they can be tied together with what we’re learning.”
For Bleichner, it’s the teachers at ORCA that make the program so unique.
“You can go up to them after school and ask them questions, and they’ll sit with you for hours if you need it,” she said.
Kveven said that ORCA has more than exceeded her initial vision. Her hope is that the program transforms the students’ minds, encouraging them to keep pursuing knowledge even when they are no longer a student.
“The mission at ORCA is to inspire creative thinking in a small school, relationship setting,” Kveven said. “And provide students with tools they can use for the rest of their lives.”