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Kistemann helps underprivileged students find a love of learning and college

When she walks the hallways at Kyrene de los Niños Elementary School, McKay School alumna Courtney Kistemann frequently hears students chanting: “We are Niños School! We are college bound!” The students’ ambitious attitudes toward higher education are particularly significant, considering that Niños is a Title I school located in an area of Tempe, Arizona, in which the majority of the students are from underprivileged backgrounds. “Many of our students are poor not only monetarily but also emotionally, physically, and mentally,” Kistemann explained.

Niños participates in the No Excuses University program, in which students are encouraged from a young age to actively include college in their future plans. As part of the program, each classroom chooses a university as a theme for its college activities; naturally, the students in Kistemann’s classroom can be seen wearing blue and singing the BYU fight song. “My class’ college is BYU, and we wouldn’t have it any other way,” she declared. “Go cougars!” Before the No Excuses program was adopted at their school, students at Niños rarely heard about college. “It wasn’t a topic in our students’ homes,” Kistemann said. “This year, students and parents are talking about college. Students have more of a focus and are taking on more and more responsibility for their learning. We have developed a community of learners who set and achieve goals together.”

Like many of her students, Kistemann began dreaming about attending BYU when she was just a little girl, growing up in Moreno Valley, California. “As long as I can remember, I planned to attend BYU,” Kistemann recalled. “My mother, father, three sisters, and two brothers all attended BYU, not to mention several extended family members.” So even though as a senior in high school she was offered automatic admission into any California university, Kistemann opted to move to Provo. She graduated from the McKay School in April 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education.

Kistemann credits BYU with teaching her how to work hard and discipline herself. “BYU is a demanding school and requires great skill and dedication,” she stated. “I entered the work force well prepared. My principal has commented on this on different occasions.” Kistemann hopes to impact Niños Elementary in such a way that future BYU graduates can enter with a good reputation. “It’s fun being the only Latter-day Saint member in the school,” she said. “It reminds me of what I learned at BYU: Always be your best because you never know who’s watching.”

Thus far in her teaching career, Kistemann has had her eyes opened to the need for both compassion and perseverance. “I knew working at a Title I school would be difficult, but not to this extent,” she admitted. “I don’t think any university could prepare you for the heartache you experience when you hear students’ stories or see the way they live.” Constantly reminding herself of the factors influencing her students’ daily lives—gang neighborhoods, etc.—allows Kistemann to avoid frustration when students are constantly absent or do not turn in work. “This is a hard job and many times not immediately rewarding, but it is worth it,” she stated. “Everyone deserves good teachers and education.”

Kistemann married her husband, Jonathan, in the San Diego Temple two months after she graduated from BYU. “I am a big fan of marriage!” she said. “My husband and I live in a small apartment and are ward missionaries. We both share a love for the gospel and are very happy.” Kistemann emphasized that she prefers using her free time to catch up on sleep, because “teaching is tiring!” She also enjoys playing indoor soccer, scrapbooking, dancing, and reading.

May 19, 2009