EVERETT — On the first day of class, the school was empty.
No books. No labs. No lecture.
Instead, the faculty and their students were on a beach near Deception Pass State Park.
The 90 students from Ocean Research College Academy gathered scientific data about the Salish Sea ecosystem. Up at sunrise and unperturbed by rain, they examined sea stars before the tide came in and tracked porpoises feeding in the changing currents offshore. In their analysis, students hypothesized about what the data might mean.
Inside the Rosario Beach Marine Lab, which hosted their two-day visit, students opened textbooks only because they wanted information. The teachers made meals and posed tough questions for the group to discuss. The place buzzed.
“Our trip to Deception Pass is a great start to the year,” Alexis Dittoe*, 17, said.
Alexis, who plays softball for Everett High School, is in her second year at the academy. When her high school friends had returned to class in the days before the academy year began in late September, Alexis spent time near Jetty Island collecting plankton for her final research project.
Alexis calls the academy by its acronym, ORCA, and says she loves it.
The academy is celebrating its 10th year and recently received a $220,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to buy its own tugboat-sized research vessel.
ORCA is part of Everett Community College’s Running Start program and funded through the college. In lieu of finishing their junior and senior years at their respective high schools, ORCA students simultaneously earn credits at the academy to graduate, with their freshman and sophomore college years completed as well. Like other Running Start participants, ORCA students do not pay tuition.
It’s an intense program focused on math, science, English and history. Prospective ORCA students from throughout Snohomish County competitively apply to attend. Each year, there is a waiting list.
The school is getting national attention, and director Ardi Kveven (pronounced Kweven) regularly is invited to talk about ORCA at education conferences across the country.
“ORCA is about our local environment, which makes it relevant for our students,” Kveven said. “But this early college idea can be emulated and adapted for just about any context. Students collect data, analyze that data and show their results. It’s not about a teacher telling you what you need to know, but more about you doing some research that provides evidence to support your ideas.”
Sharing results took on an important nature during the past school year when a biologist from the state ferry system asked to see data collected by ORCA students at the south end of Possession Sound.
A new Mukilteo ferry terminal is in the works, and the biologist wanted to know the habits of seals and other marine mammals so construction won’t interfere with their habitat.
“Nobody else had the data we did,” Kveven said. “Our students are proud of what we do. We start by building a general understanding of the region and then we break it down into environmental issues.”
“We are appreciated for our research. We are treated like adults,” said student Danica Buse, 17. “And for kids like me that’s a good thing.”
The story of ORCA began decades ago when Kveven, now 48, was a child spending summers playing with the crabs on the beach in front of her grandparents’ cabin on Lummi Island.
“I knew by fifth grade that I wanted to be a marine biologist,” Kveven said.
During her undergraduate work at the University of Washington, Kveven spent as much time as she could at the UW marine science labs at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island working closely with her professors.
“It wasn’t long before I knew that I also wanted to teach,” she said.
After years teaching oceanography at North Kitsap and Snohomish high schools, Kveven began to doubt what she could accomplish in a traditional school setting.
“I sure couldn’t take my students to the beach in the hour set aside for class,” she said. “So I quit.”
Al Friedman, Everett Community College’s dean of math and science, got a visit one day from Kveven, who had been one of his geology students at the UW.
“Ardi was frustrated by the limitations of regular high school science programs and the lack of room to be innovative,” Friedman said. Kveven proposed the establishment of a special Running Start program focused on science. Friedman told her that money wasn’t available.
“So she said, ‘Well, we’ll get a Gates grant.’ With Ardi, I know it’s just a matter of time until she gets what she wants,” Friedman said. “So we applied and we got the grant.”
The Gates Foundation paid for the startup costs in a three-year grant. The first year was spent writing the curriculum, finding the faculty and setting it all up. In addition, the National Science Foundation later gave the academy a grant to build a college-level research laboratory at the school.
“After we had everything ready to go, I went around to the county’s high schools to sell the idea to students,” Kveven said. “I encouraged them to take a risk with us. I think it has paid off.”
“ORCA students are getting an incredible education,” he said. “If this was just a college program, and not for high school students, it would still be amazing. The fact is that ORCA is better than just about any early college program I have ever seen.”
Kveven likes to talk about the three R’s of ORCA: research, relevance and relationships.
All study at the academy is based on hands-on research by students. It is made relevant because students are studying about the place where they live. And they are expected to form supportive, collegial relationships with their fellow students, their teachers and the community.
ORCA has four teachers — along with Kveven also teaching — and is located in classrooms in a Port of Everett building on the waterfront near Scuttlebutt Brewing Co.
Since Kveven first organized ORCA in 2003, more than 300 people have graduated from the academy. There were 30 students in ORCA’s first class, which graduated in 2006. The class of 2015 has 49 students from high schools throughout the county.
Most leave with an associate degree and go straight on to universities around the country where, with the help of scholarships, they earn bachelor’s degrees in two or three years. About 66 percent of ORCA graduates go into science, technology, engineering and math, often referred to as STEM.
Alumni include medical doctors, engineers, researchers and a doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Of course, not all graduates go to MIT or other top science schools. Nor are all of them math and science majors, Kveven said.
The strong emphasis at ORCA on writing, reading, thinking critically and asking questions has resulted in at least one graduate going into communications.
“Students leave here knowing how to communicate well in order to present their ideas,” Kveven said.
Sara DeLand, 20, graduated from ORCA two years ago. She is in her third and final year at Western Washington University, where she is studying for a degree in marine biology, with minors in Latin and chemistry. Her experience at ORCA paved the way for paid summer research internships with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study sea turtles in North Carolina and at Western’s Shannon Point marine research station in Anacortes to gather data about oxygen depletion in the waters of Bellingham Bay.
Next year, she plans to enter a graduate program at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts to focus on octopus research.
“It all started at ORCA,” DeLand said. “The best thing was our hands-on research.”
The research includes traveling in their inflatable boat from the dock out in front of the school to Jetty Island to gather data. Students also take monthly cruises so they can add data to the school’s ongoing study called the State of Possession Sound. Students measure plankton, heavy metals, nutrients, dissolved oxygen, salinity and water temperature. They also maintain a survey of marine mammals and birds.
DeLand’s mother, Karen DeLand of Mill Creek, said her daughter knew in sixth grade that she wanted to attend ORCA.
“I had my doubts. It was outside of the normal educational track,” Karen DeLand said. “But now we are so proud of Sarah. It’s amazing that she is only 20 years old and she’s already had all these opportunities. She would not have flourished in regular high school the way she did at ORCA.”
About 70 percent of the students at ORCA are young women.
Some students, including the young men, say this is because teen girls are more organized than teen boys and it takes a lot of work to apply to the school. Kveven said the school does draw a lot of high-achieving girls and that one of the faculty’s goals has been to get more women into careers in math and science.
“I don’t know why we have more girls,” Kveven said. “Are girls just more attracted to marine science? Or do they appreciate the support and teamwork here? Maybe,” she said. “Or perhaps ORCA is just a place where it’s OK to be a girl who is smart.”
ORCA would not exist without its faculty, who are bent on producing lifelong learners and well-rounded, thoughtful adults, said Kveven. Student Shay King, 17, is an example of such a person, she said. Shay recently wrote a blog post about his studies in ocean acidification.
“Being that I have a younger perspective on this issue and the threats it poses, I have become increasingly concerned for the state of our oceans and what it means for my generation and the generations to follow,” he wrote. “Ocean acidification is the nasty twin of atmospheric climate change.”
Robin Araniva, Wendy Houston, Shelly Jordan-Zirkle and Josh Searle said teaching at ORCA is a dream job. Searle is the English teacher and, students said, the guy who has most helped them learn how to fail.
“This is a terrific place and time in their lives to respond to difficulty and struggle and what to do when a document doesn’t say what you had expected,” Searle said.
There are no easy A’s at ORCA. Failure is something that a scientist has to get used to in order to find the facts, said student Sierra Nicholson, 17, who plans to become an American Sign Language interpreter. She and her friends were shocked when Searle returned their first essays.
“Our hearts sank when we saw our grades,” Kaylie Gray, 17, said. Kaylie is a scuba diver who plans to study marine biology at Oregon State University.
“Most of us were A students in high school, but we were still writing at a middle school level,” said Danica Buse, who hopes to become an osteopath. “Our rewritten essays were college-level and beautiful.”
Roland Upenieks, 17, sat outside on the deck at the Rosario Beach Marine Lab near Deception Pass on the first day of school.
His final project at ORCA will be the creation of a map showing trends in the changes of the chemistry and water temperatures of Possession Sound. Next year, he plans to study chemical engineering at the University of Washington.
“I am glad my parents pushed me to apply to ORCA and that I got in,” Roland said. “I would not have gotten the same level of instruction in my high school or in the regular Running Start program. My teachers are amazing.”
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; email@example.com.
Over the summer, ORCA students were required to read the book “Where the Wild Things Were: Vanishing Predators and the Balance of Nature” by wildlife journalist William Stolzenburg. The author plans to talk about his book at a free public lecture set for 6 p.m. Thursday in the Wilderness Room in Jackson Center, Everett Community College.
* Correction, Oct. 7, 2013: This article originally had an incorrect spelling for Alexis Dittoe.
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