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Saturday, June 17, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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ORCA program makes splash

Times Snohomish County bureau

With its first Ocean Research College Academy (ORCA) class garnering more than $100,000 in scholarships to four-year universities, Everett Community College will expand the program so more high-schoolers can earn associate degrees while studying marine science.

Sixteen of the 20-plus students selected two years ago for the experimental program, funded through a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant, received their associate degrees last week. Fourteen are headed to universities that include the University of Washington, Pepperdine University, Western Washington University, Washington State University, Seattle Pacific University and Central Washington University.

One student received full tuition at the UW to pursue oceanography. Another received $8,000 to study marine science at Western Washington, and a third is a Gates millennium scholar with a full ride to Seattle Pacific.

The ORCA program is the brainchild of Ardi Kveven, who wanted to offer her Snohomish High School students more field opportunities than public schools can accommodate. The Gates Foundation offered a three-year grant worth $210,000 — more than requested — with the first year's funding mostly geared toward organizing the program.

Based on ORCA's success, Everett CC officials say they will make up the funding difference — about $60,000 to $80,000 annually — now that the Gates grant has expired.

"In particular, we're pleased with the transfer rate of the students and the quality of the schools they're getting into," said Al Friedman, Everett CC's dean of science and math. "To make the program viable, however, it needs to be about twice as big. That's our goal this year."

Everett CC jumped at the chance to offer the program, Kveven said, as it fit with other Running Start programs there. Under Running Start, a state-sponsored program, high-school students can earn college credits while finishing their diplomas.

"We got to create ourselves from the bottom up, and we've been able to build on the students' successes," Kveven said of the achievements of the first class. "We far surpassed the Gates Foundation's expectations."

Student Emily Stefannson, an 18-year-old headed to Western Washington in the fall, received an opportunity she never expected in high school.

"I've always said I was interested in marine biology, and this program was absolutely perfect," she said. "It's been a lot of hard work, but it pays off."

The challenge now, as class sizes increase, is to be sure incoming students are equipped to handle a college atmosphere.

"Some of those first students were not ready, and the hard part is determining how to evaluate students coming in at the end of the sophomore year and preparing them," Kveven said. "It's painful to lose students, so we need to make sure they can be successful."

But Friedman said the ORCA program is one of his department's priorities.

"We are currently in a tight budget situation, so we had some long talks about what is affordable," he said. "ORCA was at the top of the list."

Christopher Schwarzen: 425-783-0577 or cschwarzen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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