Seeking First the Kingdom: Curtis Kleisinger and Mother Teresa Middle School
Since its founding, ACE has graduated nearly 2,000 teachers and leaders. These teachers and leaders have continued to support and transform Catholic education, both directly and indirectly, by living out a commitment to community, spirituality, and professionalism. In an era obsessed with measurement, it is both tempting and worthwhile to quantify the successes and contributions of our graduates. This post, one in a series of stories from our graduates, is an attempt to capture that which numbers sometimes fail to tell: the nuances and nitty gritty details of moments—sometimes small, sometimes large—through which the mission of ACE continues in the everyday lives of its graduates.
As the world celebrated the canonization in September of Mother Teresa, a woman who dedicated her life to serving the unloved and unwanted, Curtis Kleisinger and his team were busy on the other side of the world responding to an invitation made directly by the saint twenty-five years earlier. Curtis, a graduate of the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program’s 13th cohort, serves as the Executive Director of Mother Teresa Middle School in Regina, Canada, a NativityMiguel school that serves mainly indigenous children. The school began as an idea when a group of Catholic CEOs asked Mother Teresa how they could promote her mission. When Paul J. Hill, the school’s founding donor, approached Mother Teresa, checkbook in hand, at the conclusion of a private audience, the saint challenged him to find and fill a need in his local community. She offered all those who contribute to the school an opportunity to allow God to work through them to fulfill His plan for this place.
Curtis was not present for Mother Teresa’s personal invitation, but he responded to the invitation in his own way. Curtis grew up in the Regina area, and he knew the disparities between his own educational experiences and those of the indigenous population. Curtis witnessed the low graduation rates and the negligence toward historically marginalized populations in schools, and he felt compelled to act, even though he planned to leave education entirely and return to business. Not knowing precisely why he was taking on this challenge or where it would lead him, he applied for and accepted the position as founding principal of the school.
Blind faith propelled Curtis into the unknown: charged with starting the first NativityMiguel school in Canada, Curtis set out to learn more about this model that a group of Jesuits developed in Manhattan in 1971 to provide students a holistic academic, social, and spiritual education. With no roadmap aside from the NativityMiguel model and his own hope for what Mother Teresa Middle School could be, Curtis learned from a set of exemplary schools and leaders throughout the United States. Moving from one end of the United States to the other, Curtis began to make the idea of Mother Teresa Middle School a reality.
Though completely overwhelmed at times by the travel and the weight of the unknown, Curtis found sustenance in Michael Collopy’s Works of Love are Works of Peace, a photographic documentation of Mother Teresa’s apostolic life. One photo in particular—an image of the saint’s sandaled feet, weathered and swollen—kept Curtis grounded in the knowledge that he was not doing this work by himself or for himself. It was something that God was accomplishing through him. As he realized the larger design of his work, he grew convinced that this school would flourish if he simply cooperated with God’s will.
Now in his fourth year as executive director, Curtis has assembled a committed staff of teachers and leaders who seek to improve the lives of every child in their care. The school has become one of the most successful schools, Catholic or otherwise, in Canada. Mother Teresa Middle School provides breakfast, lunch, and two snacks each day for every student, as well as transportation, clothing, eye and dental care, hearing assessments, external counselling, an enrichment program, and access to an onsite social worker. The work shows in the results; 78 percent of eighth-graders scored above average in reading and writing, and 88 percent scored above average in math on the Canadian Achievement Tests. Students continue to do well after they graduate; Curtis’s team, in keeping with the Nativity model, tracks students through high school, after which Mother Teresa Middle School provides chances to receive post-secondary education or receive full-time employment.
Curtis will continue his work beyond Mother Teresa Middle School. He has begun facilitating work on Gonzaga Middle School, Canada’s second NativityMiguel school, which opened in Winnipeg this year. His responsiveness to the needs of these specific Canadian communities is an answer to Mother Teresa’s call to “insist on raising funds of love, of kindness, of understanding, of peace.” Curtis realized long ago that this project is not powered by his talents alone, nor is it his place to know the entirety of the plan for Mother Teresa Middle School. Rather, he strives to allow God to work through him, to keep propelling his own feet — tired and swollen as they may be — into the unknown, assured of Mother Teresa’s words: “if we seek first the Kingdom of God — the rest will be given.”