Linking parents, schools


Nancy Berla doesn't speak all that much Spanish. But she's fluent in a language most people understand - love.

That's how it is, then, that Berla is able to calm a crying 4-year-old or persuade an active 3-year-old girl who speaks little English not to sit on top of a lunch table without ever knowing the proper words to say. She uses hugs and smiles and gentleness to soothe, convince and teach small lessons.

Ninety minutes an afternoon, twice a week, Berla communicates with children this way.

Other times, Berla speaks her love-language with grown-ups - parents who speak little English but need rides to or from parent-teacher conferences at Running Brook Elementary, where Berla is a volunteer.

The exchange during the rides is never intricate, but the smiles are intimate.

It's for those reasons, and many more, that Berla, 70, was recently given one of the school system's first Friends of Education awards - implemented this year by the Board of Education to recognize private citizens and businesses that make significant contributions to the education of Howard County students.

The awards were handed out at a school board meeting to four people and two businesses last month, but those recognized just keep giving.

Although she is retired, for example, Berla still gives 15 to 20 hours a week to Running Brook, working to make the community - especially those who speak little English - feel more a part of the school.

Berla began volunteering at Running Brook in 1992, when her grandchildren were enrolled there. Having worked for years for an organization called the National Committee for Citizens in Education - promoting parent involvement in schools - Berla knew firsthand the impact mothers and fathers made on children's education.

"When parents are involved, their children do better in school and the children go to better schools," Berla said.

And she also knew that the earlier children started being exposed to formal learning, the better they would do in future schooling.

She decided to try out an idea at Running Brookbecause she was so impressed with the school's diversity.

She wrote a grant proposal for a program that would increase school involvement with Spanish-speaking parents and was awarded the money. Because of her, Family and Community Together with Schools (FACTS) was created.

What began as a two-morning-a-week summer program for low-income children has expanded to a five-day-a-week summer program with parent seminars, family fun nights, free English classes for parents, support groups for non-English speaking families and a preschool program for 4-year-olds.

"We were the first school to have preschool in Howard County as a result of Nancy Berla and her insight," said Running Brook Principal Marion Miller. "Now I think there are eight preschool programs in the county."

Much of her time spent at the school is working with the FACTS program. But she doesn't stop there.

"She tries to take away all the obstacles to parent involvement," Miller said. "All through the school year she helps us. She is amazing."

Berla arranges for interpreters and baby-sitting for parents during parent conference weeks and if none can be arranged, she cares for the children herself.

During the twice-weekly English classes for Spanish-speaking parents, Berla sits on the floor and plays with Tonka trucks and squeak-toys or sings "London Bridge" along with a Playskool boom box.

Every third Friday of the month, Running Brook takes families on a bus trip to the library, and Berla stays behind with the littlest ones.

Berla provides snacks and arts and crafts, and has donated her grandchildren's old stroller so she can push cranky infants around in, lulling them to sleep.

"I really enjoy connecting with lots of parts of the community and giving back," she said.

By writing 15 to 20 grant applications over the years, she has earned the school more than $100,000 for programs, Berla said - including health fairs, tutoring and partnerships.

Much of her effort has concentrated on non-English speaking families and their barriers to parent involvement.

When Berla started at Running Brook, Spanish-speaking parents hardly stepped foot in the school, she said. Berla arranged to bring the parents in, conduct a tour of the school and, she hoped, start a support group for them.

"When they got there they said, 'Well, where is my child's classroom?' It was March! Where were they at parent-teacher conferences? They didn't come," Berla said. "I couldn't believe it. The parents were so anxious to be in the school. They weren't feeling welcome. How could they? They couldn't speak the language. But they were so happy to be there that night. We were bringing them to the school finally and saying, 'We want you here.'"

Now parents come to pick up their children from child care and eagerly greet "Miss Nancy," with a smile and a few English words - "Hello" or "How are you?"

Berla is working to learn more Spanish, so she can communicate better with the parents and children who are just beginning to feel a real part of the school. Sometimes, her husband, who is also retired, says to her, as she "bops in and out of the house," as he puts it, "Sit down, Nancy. Can you just sit for a minute?"

But Berla said she doesn't see herself stopping any time soon.

"I guess this is a passion for me. I just think this is a part of my life and I don't see why that would change," she said. "I know I can't help everybody. But I can do a little bit for a few people."

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