Matthew Mark Elfstrom, a seventh- and eighth-grade math and science teacher at Romig Middle School in Anchorage, received a Milken Award with a check for $25,000 at a school assembly ceremony on Friday afternoon. He was selected for the prize, in part, because of his work with struggling math students.
The awards, which have been given since 1987, honor teachers and principals and are considered the equivalent of a Grammy or an Oscar in the education profession. About 100 are presented by the Milken Family Foundation of Santa Monica, Calif., each year. The selection process is based on various criteria determined by the foundation itself. You can't apply for it, administrators can't nominate a teacher and, once the selection is made, it is kept a close secret until the prize can be presented.
So when Elfstrom's students asked him what the hastily announced assembly was for on Friday morning, he could honestly say, "I don't know."
But staff began to suspect something when they came into the Romig gym to find the band playing, television cameras set up and dignitaries at the podium who included Anchorage School Superintendent Carol Comeau and State Commissioner of Education and Early Development Mike Hanley.
Hanley described the award to the students, then announced the teacher's name. Stunned, Elfstrom made his way to the floor to the rumble of feet on the bleachers and cheers from the students.
Elfstrom was born in Mount Holly, N.J. His father was in the Air Force and the family moved to Anchorage when Elfstrom was 8 years old. He graduated from Bartlett High School in 1997 and attended Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota.
"I went there to play football," he told the Daily News. "But I met some great educators and thought, 'That's where I need to be.' "
He received his teaching degree in 2001 and returned to Anchorage, where he has taught since.
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 Matthew 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. Examples include building model airplanes and producing DVDs.
"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 lives in Anchorage with his wife, Melissa, and two pound-puppy dogs, Reese and Kai. His interests include mountain climbing, mountain biking and back-country skiing.
Standing on the gym floor with his oversize facsimile check in hand, he said he wasn't quite sure how he'd celebrate the prize. "I'm overwhelmed," he said. "I'm so humbled by it. I'm shaking, standing here."