Nauset High Principal Ready For Next Chapter
By: Ryan Bray
Topics: Education , Nauset Regional School District , Nauset High School
NORTH EASTHAM — Chris Ellsasser likes to take his meetings on the go. He prefers walking and talking with students and staff, an approach he says helps him and his assistant principals, Sean Fleming and Patrick Clark, stay on top of the busy world of education that bustles around them.
"One of the philosophies I have is if you are present, things don't escalate," he said. "We probably each talk to a hundred people a day, kids and faculty, so people are able to ask questions, or if something comes up we can get to it immediately. If you hole up in your office, things don't get to you until they're really big."
On a picturesque early summer afternoon last week, the Nauset Regional High School principal took a few leisurely laps around the school's North Eastham campus. He circled around to the back of the buildings past the high school football field, where just a few weeks ago he gave his final commencement address.
A 1982 Nauset graduate, Ellsasser, whose last day as principal was June 30, took a circuitous route toward returning home. From stints ranging from inner city schools to private boarding schools, grade schools to colleges and states including California, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, he's learned a lot in his 30-plus years in education.
But he says he's learned as much by what he's found doesn't work as what has. Upon being hired at Nauset in 2018, he gave careful thought to what school can and should be for students, staff and families, and how the school community can evolve beyond the traditional school model that has largely been in place for centuries.
"The bells and the rows of desks come from preparing people to work in factories at a station between bells with a boss at the front of the room," he said, discussing the origins of America's public school system. "So how do we move from that to a more modern form of education that is really grounded in creativity and innovation, almost the opposite model?"
In his four years as principal, Ellsasser has strived to instill that progressive approach at Nauset and create a culture where students, teachers, staff and parents better coexist as a community. It's not uncommon at the high school, for instance, for a senior to be asked to address a problem with an underclassman. Similarly, freshman and sophomore students are encouraged to participate and make their voices heard, both in and out of the classroom. For Ellsasser, it's all part of a broader mission of educating students to be well-rounded citizens.
"The more we can have the kids feel like they have ownership in the school, then it starts to feel like home," he said. "And once it starts to feel like home, they treat the place with respect, and by extension people with respect."
"He created an environment that allowed students to flourish," said Nauset Regional School Committee Chair Chris Easley. "That is without a doubt a great, great thing."
After graduating from Brandeis University, Ellsasser moved to California, where his wife was attending law school. He came to education after trying out other lines of work, including as a magazine editor and newspaper reporter.
It was while painting houses in South Central Los Angeles, when Ellsasser heard from a friend about a substitute teaching opportunity in the valley that paid well. He decided to give it a shot, and upon stepping foot in that eighth grade math class, he knew he had found his path forward.
"I did a lot of different jobs, but when I walked into that classroom, it was like, 'this is it,'" he said.
The experience kicked off what would become a decades-long journey canvassing the educational spectrum, as well as multiple states. He spent time teaching in private schools before taking a position at Wheeler School in Providence, a job he took for a year while his wife continued law school in California. In 1998, he was accepted into teachers' college at Columbia University in New York City, where he completed the five-year program in just two.
"I lived in the library," he recalled. "It was great because I could see how everything connected, whereas everyone else was taking the courses stretched out. But it was intense."
Ellsasser then spent seven years as a professor of education at Pepperdine University. When his twin sons were born, he and his family moved back to his native Massachusetts, where he took a position at Lawrence Academy in Groton. After a few years at Lawrence, he accepted the position of dean of studies at the Cambridge School of Weston.
Nauset, he said, offered him the opportunity to fold all of his various teaching experiences together. Through the different schools at which he's taught and the diverse populations he's served, he said he's found that all students and educators want one thing: respect.
"I came to realize that people are far more similar than different," he said. "Every kid wants to be important and make a contribution. Every family wants their child to be able to take care of themselves. Every teacher wants to help kids find out what they're really good at and celebrate that. Whether you're in Compton or Newport Beach or Eastham."
In December, Ellsasser informed the Nauset Regional School Committee of his decision not to return as principal in the fall. The reasons behind his decision to leave are "complicated," he said. While he said he had hoped to stay, "that's just not the way it played out."
But Easley said Ellsasser's impact on the high school will be felt long after he's gone. He credited the principal with positioning the high school for its impending campus renovation.
"The building project was designed around an educational vision," Easley said. "It was his job to coordinate that process. He will have an impact on education at Nauset for the next 50 years."
Now Ellsasser is ready to move on to his next professional chapter, even though he's not exactly sure what that entails. While he considered a college-level position in Chicopee, he said he's looking to stay rooted on the Cape.
"I decided that being away from home to the extent that I would be was not going to work for us," he said. "I certainly don't want to uproot our kids at this age."
Ellsasser said he would ultimately like to find another job in education on the peninsula, but for now he's focusing on projects that bring together his passion for both education and writing. He's working on two books, one of which he said "describes how to do school" by giving parents a week-by-week breakdown of the life of a typical student's school year.
"For so many kids, school feels like a board game you don't know how to play, but you're there," he said. "And by the time you figure it out, it's over. At the same time, families don't know what it's like for a high school kid to go through high school. There's no manual for that."
The second book focuses on study skills and learning habits. He also plans to collect and "polish up" some of the short essays he's shared with Nauset staff and families since the start of the pandemic.
The break from the school administration grind will also allow Ellsasser more time with his family, including his sons, 14, who are entering eighth grade at Nauset Regional Middle School.
"I'm looking forward to being more present at home," he said.
Ellsasser said he leaves the high school comfortable that its next principal, Patrick Clark, will continue to move the school in the right direction. Clark was hired this year as assistant principal after a long tenure as principal of Barnstable High School.
"We have a very good relationship," he said of Clark. "He's been kind of fading in as I've been fading out. It's been a good transition. Otherwise, I leave and another person comes in, and you have to do all this acculturation."
As his afternoon walk ended, Ellsasser turned in toward the middle of the Nauset campus. He took a seat on a short concrete wall, where behind him a large nautically-themed mural boasted an oft-quoted line from President John F. Kennedy.
"As they say on my own Cape Cod," it reads, "a rising tide lifts all boats."
"The more you can learn from people who are not like you, the better off we all are," Ellsasser said. "You can turn school into a place where kids learn to be part of an inclusive culture. They learn that one of the best ways to give to yourself is to serve others. Schools can be a microcosm of what the world could be, which makes them such extraordinary places."
Email Ryan Bray at firstname.lastname@example.org