Making High School More Like Westmont

Erik Ellefsen ’97 came to Westmont to play baseball, but he never pitched an inning. His first semester, he injured his shoulder, and reconstructive surgery and rehabilitation failed to restore his arm. “My identity was tied up in baseball, and I went through a crisis,” he says. “Then I found my true identity in Christ.”

Erik learned how to be a student at Westmont. “I wasn’t prepared academically for college,” he says, “but I worked hard, and it was a joy. Westmont took a chance on me and transformed my life as a student and a child of God.”

Since he couldn’t play baseball, Erik became the student team manager and got interested in coaching. His junior year he transferred to Wheaton, where his father worked as a janitor, and he helped coach the baseball team there. He also majored in history and earned a secondary teaching credential.

Returning to California, he got a job teaching and coaching at Valley Christian High School in San Jose, where he met his wife, Kim. He discovered he liked teaching better than coaching. “I realized I could make an impact on students and do for them what Westmont did for me: help them become good students,” he says. He gave up coaching to teach history at the massive public high school he attended in the Chicago area, Willowbrook in Villa Park.

At the age of 27, Erik was elected grievance chair of the teachers union. “I went into public education to be a light, and I took that light into the darkest places in the school. I got involved with people’s lives when they were broken and falling apart, and I had to defend them. This created a moral dilemma for me: How do I defend unethical people I believe are unfit to be in the classroom? I started asking larger questions about my effectiveness as an individual in such a large organization, and I realized I could make an impact on individual lives, but not on the union or school.”

Frustrated that the union focused more on improving wages and benefits than education, Erik enrolled at Boston University to get a doctorate in education and pursue questions he had about his career. He wanted to promote excellence and not protect the worst members of his profession.

While in school, he became academic dean of a new Christian high school, Boston Trinity Academy, where he developed a strong academic program. “It was my first true experience in school leadership,” he says.

Four years ago he became principal of Chicago Christian High School, and he has worked to transform it academically. Two years into this task, he developed multiple myeloma, bone marrow cancer. He continued promoting his vision and developing programs while others carried out day-to-day duties. Five cycles of chemotherapy and two stem-cell transplants later, he’s in remission with a good prognosis.

“Having cancer caused me to slow down and reflect,” he says. “It reaffirmed that Christ is in charge and that trusting him is the only way to go. It made me think about what I want to do with my life if I only have five or 10 more years. What do I want to accomplish in that time? I’ve chosen to focus on two organizations promoting excellence and innovation in Christian high schools: the Council on Education Standards and Accountability and the Christian Coalition for Educational Innovation. I’m doing what I love, transforming Christian high schools to reflect Westmont’s values and experience.”

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