- Falmouth Public Schools
Along for the Ride
The Unsung Hero is designated by Superintendent of Schools Lori S. Duerr to shine a well-deserved spotlight on individuals in the Falmouth Public Schools who make invaluable contributions to the district.
Along for the Ride: Bus Aide Ellie Berkowitz Reinforces Safety and Respect
By Sarah E. Murphy
When Ellie Berkowitz lost her beloved husband, Ron, four and a half years ago to pancreatic cancer, she decided to get a post-retirement job to keep her mind occupied.
“He was my best friend, and it happened very quickly. I needed to have a purpose. So I went into the School Department and I said, ‘give me a purpose,’” she recalled.
Boasting a 54-year nursing career, including four decades of home health care through South Shore and Brockton Hospital, Ellie was initially asked if she’d like to work as a school nurse, but she opted for something different.
“I wanted to be able to interact with the kids, but I didn’t want an enormous amount of responsibility. I didn’t want to go home with homework anymore,” she said.
“This is the perfect fit for me. I get to be Grandma all day.”
While “Miss Ellie” may not view her role as vital, the results of her dedication speak to the contrary. Now in her fourth year working for Falmouth Public Schools, this year she works primarily with preschoolers at East Falmouth Elementary School - accompanying them to and from school each day, while serving as a support system for bus driver, Kristina Friend. The two have worked together for the past three years, also providing coverage for field trips and other special events for older students in the district.
“Kristina is awesome. I don’t cross her road, and she doesn’t cross mine. We respect each other’s jugement, so we work really well together,” she said.
She and Ms. Friend arrive at Falmouth High School, where the bus is parked, each day at 7:30 a.m., to conduct a full bus inspection before the morning run. And although safety is always the first priority on Bus #58, an equal emphasis is placed on learning and laughter. Miss Ellie takes advantage of the short commute to teach a captive audience meaningful lessons using stories, music, and games.
“We try to teach the children to be as independent as they can because the teachers expect that of them. So they all go into their seats by themselves, and they try to buckle up on their own. It’s okay if they can’t, because I check all the buckles anyway,” she said.
Ellie keeps a tally of each student on the bus each day, in order to provide a report to the teachers upon arrival. She also does a full sweep of the bus to be certain all children have disembarked.
“We’re very careful about things like making sure no one has fallen asleep,” she said.
During her interactions with the students, Miss Ellie is also able to quickly detect visible signs of illness or distress, in addition to forgotten coats or shoes on wrong feet.
Once the students are settled safely into their seats, they decide on an activity, such as Simon Says or I Spy, which is usually related to the corresponding season.
“They all know the meaning behind Veterans’ Day, and why we celebrate. They also understand now why the mail trucks are red, white, and blue,” Ellie said.
They also learn from each other.
“If someone says they’re going to the dentist, we turn that into a lesson. Have you ever been to the dentist? Who else has been to the dentist? Let’s talk about what happens when we go to the dentist.’ That way, they have an idea of what to expect,” she said.
“I take this job seriously. I try to move around the whole bus so I get to know all of them.”
She also takes time to be silly, leading them in song, and wearing costumes for her self-proclaimed “Wacky Wednesday.”
Doing whatever she can to alleviate anxiety is also a top priority for Miss Ellie.
“If a child is uncomfortable or sad about being on the bus, we talk to the parents or caregivers and encourage them to send a special toy in their backpack that is only meant to be used on the bus. So far, it’s worked. I’ve never had a child leave this bus crying,” she said with a smile.
Ellie also takes pride in Bus 58’s emphasis on empathy; treating each other with kindness is non-negotiable, a sentiment that extends to their teachers. When the bus is approximately a half-mile from arrival, Miss Ellie shifts from games to her daily reminder to be respectful, as the children all turn on their proverbial listening ears with a collective, “Click, click, click.”
“The teachers call this the ‘Happy Bus.’ Our motto is, ‘Work Hard, Play Hard.’ That’s what they say when they get off the bus every day,” she said.
“These kids are like sponges, and they’re awfully sweet.”
Over the past four years with Falmouth Public Schools, Ellie has found her much-needed purpose. The proud mother of Joseph and Frayda, and grandmother to Max, Maya, and Nico, she looks forward to work every day.
“If I can make one child happy one day, it makes me feel good,” she said
Director of Transportation Aiden Molloy believes Ellie’s nursing career and her personality contribute to her ability to relate to children while also earning their trust.
“Ellie’s an asset, and she makes my job easier. She’s really in it for the kids, and they respect her,” he said.
“She notices when they’re feeling down, and she’s also able to pick up on things that the average layperson without her background might not see,” he said.
Superintendent of Schools Lori S. Duerr echoed his sentiments, underscoring the imperative role such positions play in the daily operations of Falmouth Public Schools.
“Student safety is at the forefront of everything we do - every student, every day. Not only is Ellie keeping our students safe physically, she’s also providing them invaluable social-emotional support, while supporting our teachers’ efforts by fostering education and promoting kindness,” Dr. Duerr said.
“Drivers and aides are the first to greet our students, and set the tone for the kind of day they will have. They help every student have a great day in school. We are so grateful for all that Ellie does to help our students thrive.”