Sirens
Matt Schroeter / The Chronicle Terry Bergeson, Washington superintendent of public instruction, gives a speech during an educational forum at the Bob Lyle Community Center in Morton Monday evening. Bergeson talked about the state's "Washington Learns" initiative to improve public education.

MORTON — Terry Bergeson, Washington's superintendent of public instruction, spoke to a small but attentive crowd Monday night at the East Lewis County Chamber of Commerce's Education Forum. Just more than 40 people were on hand for the forum, held at the Bob Lyle Community Center in Morton.

The crowd was treated to a variety of speakers, with topics ranging from updates on student progress and levies at East Lewis County schools to methamphetamine's harsh effects on some students. In all, the night turned out to be a wide overview of educational offerings in East Lewis County.

"Education is a valuable tool, not only for the individual, but for the entire country," said Paul Stewart, executive director of the ELCCC, who was the master of ceremonies for the informational forum.

Debi Hood was the first speaker, discussing the Lewis County Head Start program. Also speaking were Jose Diaz, Centralia College's diversity coordinator; April Doolittle, the associate dean of Centralia College East; Marty Fortin, director of the Cispus Learning Center; Dale McDaniel, superintendent of Onalaska schools; Jim Forrest, Mossyrock High School principal; Josh Brooks, Morton High School principal; and Brian Talbott, White Pass School District superintendent.

The forum moved along quickly, with each speaker taking a few minutes to discuss his or her own topic, and then handing over the microphone.

Bill Keim, superintendent of Educational Service District 113, preceded Bergeson at the podium. Keim explained what ESD 113 does for Lewis County schools, and introduced the broad, controversial topic of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning test.

"The challenge this year is that the sophomores who will sit for the WASL have to pass all three parts of that to graduate," said Keim.

The WASL test, predictably, was the subject on the minds of most in the audience.

"One kid not walking at graduation will be really hard on us," said Keim, in reference to the test.

Bergeson finally took the podium at a little after 8 p.m., explaining the process and importance of instituting the WASL test to students. She also pointed out that while the test has been the subject of much criticism and attention, students are also still required to pass all of their classes in order to graduate.

"It isn't just the WASL," Bergeson said. "Kids have to pass courses, just like they always have."

The superintendent stressed the importance of the science and math portions of the WASL, and how the two subjects should be taught in public schools.

"Fifty-five percent of graduates are taking remedial math at community colleges," she said, emphasizing that many high school graduates are unprepared for college-level courses. "I think we have a lot of kids that don't have the core skills they need."

Stewart opened up the forum to questions from the audience at 8:30. Several members of the statewide group, Mothers Against WASL, were on hand, and were eager to ask Bergeson about the test.

"I feel it's putting a lot of weight on the students," said Jennie Hudson, who heads the group's Onalaska chapter.

Hudson questioned the validity of the test, asking how the exam would apply to certain students with learning disabilities.

"It's like a monster that's been created," said Hudson.

"We are in the process of developing alternative options," answered Bergeson, who explained that the options would be in place in time for the class of 2008, the first students required to pass the exam, to use them.

"We're going through a lot of changes, and there hasn't been a lot of accountability in schools," the elected official said.

Students are given five chances, from their sophomore year through their senior year, to pass the test.

Speaking at the forum was the last item on Bergeson's agenda. The superintendent had spent Sunday night in the area, waking early for breakfast in White Pass and a tour of the White Pass School District. She took a trip to the Cispus Learning Center in the afternoon.

"I loved the trip," said Bergeson, once the forum had wrapped up. "I had fun at Cispus and got involved with the kids. It was a great way to see a variety of education."

She also noted that the variety of speakers made for an interesting evening.

"We looked at troubles, and what we are excited about," she said. "It's a pleasure to be here."

"It was nice, but I wish there were more people," an optimistic, but weary, Stewart said of the forum. "This is just the beginning. We're getting people to come together as a whole."

Aaron VanTuyl covers education and religion for The Chronicle. He may be reached at 807-8237 or by e-mail at avantuyl@chronline.com.