Mark Elfstrom, a 2001 alumnus of Gustavus Adolphus College, recently received a Milken Educator Award for his work as a math and science teacher at Romig Middle School in Anchorage, Alaska.
Considered the nation’s preeminent teacher recognition program, the Milken Educator Awards were launched by education reform leader Lowell Milken to celebrate, elevate, and activate exemplary K-12 educators. The program showcases in a very public way that greatness in education must be recognized and rewarded. As a recipient of the award, Elfstrom will receive an unrestricted gift of $25,000.
In a letter of recommendation, Romig Middle School Principal Sven Gustafson wrote, “Mark has a knack for turning around kids both academically and behaviorally. He inspires students to do more, be better, and try things they are not comfortable with. Mark has turned lives around, and continues to do so. He is an exceptional motivator, educator, and person.”
The citation from the Milken Foundation reads:
“His tried-and-true talent, leadership and initiative in implementing an effective math and science class targeted to struggling students – while helping lead Romig in its transition to a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Academy – make Mark Elfstrom an elite educator.”
“A compelling educator and role model, both in his school and throughout the community, Elfstrom designed his current math/science course specifically to reach out to students in danger of heading to high school with a poor attitude or dropping out entirely. Elfstrom links instruction to the real world and keeps students engaged.”
“Elfstrom is credited with his students’ average 10 to 15 percent uptick in state assessments and their newfound enthusiasm for school. The district’s point-of-contact in the area of struggling math students, Elfstrom chairs the math department, co-teaches remedial math, and is the wrestling coach. Practicum host to student teachers and a teacher mentor, he advises the district on math and science matters. Outside of the classroom, Elfstrom is involved in his community, particularly in educating people about the effects of domestic violence. He even achieved a grant for his school to involve students in his work.”
Elfstrom is also a finalist for the 2012 Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching and was also honored earlier this month by the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.
Elfstrom says that there are two main reasons why he decided to go into education.
“I struggled terribly in school,” he said. “I wanted to be an advocate for all the other kids that are like me.”
Elfstrom was also inspired to become an educator after spending several weeks in a first grade classroom as part of a community service project while he was a junior in high school.
“I would spend hours working with this little guy that had a heck of a time even recognizing his own name in print. I’d read to him, write and draw, and spend time with him at lunch and recess. By the end of the third week he was able to write words he couldn’t recognize before and read simple sentences. When he came to school his face was so bright and alive compared to what it was. When I left, he gave me a card with his name on it that said “thanks,” and that experience left a lasting impression on me.”
His Gustavus Experience
Elfstrom graduated from Bartlett High School in Anchorage in 1997 and came to Gustavus excited about playing football. He remembers times during his freshman year when he felt overwhelmed.
“Before I knew I was going into education, my advisor was Bob Douglas (Professor of Geography),” Elfstrom said. “I had him for a class my freshman year and was having a heck of a time juggling school, studying, football, and being away from Alaska. He was the first connection I made there and he provided stability. I liked his class, he cared, and was a funny guy.”
It wasn’t long before Elfstrom decided he wanted to major in education, but was surprised when he learned that there was no guarantee that he would be accepted into the program.
“There were hoops and hurdles, requirements and high expectations that for me at the time were daunting. I knew that education was where I needed to be and so I put everything I had into making it work,” he said. “I remember being accepted into the program and feeling so empowered and proud of that accomplishment. It gave me incredible respect for the education program there and I was impressed with the high expectations they had of the students they accepted into the program.”
Elfstrom said that several professors in the education department mentored him and helped him to become the teacher he is today, including his advisor David Koppenhaver and Jill Potts.
“David Koppenhaver helped guide me to the right places and to take the right classes and he was an amazing professor and educational leader,” Elfstrom said. “During a class with him, he once said “every student can learn – it is our job to find out how.””
“Jill Potts’ experience as a teacher and her passion for education was contagious. She allowed us each to grow as individuals and focused on our strengths,” he said. “All of the professors were such incredible educators themselves that it made it very clear what it was going to take to be an advocate for all types of kids. The expectation they had was that by the time you left there, you weren’t just going to survive, you were going to make a difference.”
And make a difference he has. Elfstrom said that his school is rich with diversity, and with it, challenges.
“The most rewarding part of my job is when I can teach a kid that has struggled learning all the way to seventh grade that they can learn. When they finally realize there isn’t a mystery to math and they can take chances and guide their own learning, it’s awesome,” he said.
Anchorage West High School is attached to Romig Middle School and Elfstrom says that he tries to keep in touch with his students throughout their high school career.
“When they come back, or their parents come back and say that something I did helped change their kids’ mind about school, it really makes my day,” Elfstrom said. “So thank you Gustavus. The friends and professors in my life there were pivotal in leading me in this direction.”