Inspiring the Path to Grace and Courtesy
by Meredith Kay
We can all remember those defining moments in our lives that led us to examine our situations and helped us choose which path to take next. For one dynamic San Antonio lady, it was watching her mother struggle as a single mom growing up in a rural Texas town in the Panhandle.
Crissy (Criselda) Peña decided young that her own path would include an education, and she worked in the cotton fields in Olton, Texas, during the summers to earn enough money to attend college. The daughter of migrant farm workers, Crissy’s family would split their time between picking crops in the Valley and picking cotton in northwest Texas. Her mother, who received her GED as a freshman in high school, is her biggest inspiration, and her eyes alight with admiration when she describes how her mother went back to school while working full-time and raising Crissy to become an LVN.
Olton, Texas, had only one restaurant while Crissy was growing up. With very few opportunities, Crissy set ambitious goals for herself. When she was working toward her bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Psychology at Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University), she kept a Dairy Queen hat on her bedside table to remind herself, daily, where she came from and why she was working so hard.
Crissy was the first person in her family to graduate from college. She set out to build a career in education, earning her master’s degree in Bilingual & Bicultural Education from U.T.S.A. She also received her alternative teaching certificate and ultimately received a principalship. It was only when she stopped working so hard toward her original goals that Crissy realized she wasn’t sure that was the path she wanted to pursue any longer.
She decided to step out of the classroom and focus her teaching efforts at home. Crissy homeschooled her daughter, Illiana (15), and her son, Máximo (12), for several years and then volunteered at their charter schools when they went back to public education. She has been married to Kevin Peña for 19 years now and says, “Kevin is my biggest cheerleader, and his support is a huge reason why I have been successful.”
Crissy is outgoing and vivacious, and she seems to have an endless supply of energy. It was during a workout session with a friend that the seed was planted for her current endeavor. Mitesh Patel is still her workout partner, but he is also her business partner at Montessori Kids Universe, a unique Spanish-immersion Montessori pre-school in Shavano Park. Montessori Kids Universe is the only early childhood school of its kind in San Antonio. It opened two years ago and accepts children from 6 weeks to 6 years of age.
Peña has always been an advocate of the Montessori method of education, which was developed by Maria Montessori, an Italian physician, in 1907. The approach is unique in that the curriculum is child-centered and focuses on their natural inclination toward exploration and curiosity. When asked what sets Montessori Kids Universe apart from traditional pre-school environments, Crissy states, “Every classroom is prepared intentionally, and instruction is based on instilling the concepts of grace and courtesy to our young students.”
The school works with each child individually, and teachers guide the students to follow their natural learning styles and strengths. Montessori Kids Universe nurtures order, coordination, and independence as they learn, and their STEAM curriculum also incorporates the DaVinci art and science methodology. Students are also introduced to music, yoga, gardening, and cooking. Crissy believes strongly that this method of educating young minds is essential to fostering a lifelong love of learning and inspires children to harness their individual talents and to work collaboratively and respectfully with others as they learn.
Haydee Guerrero is the director of the school, and Crissy beams when she speaks about her staff. “Haydee is an amazing leader. She is always teaching me. In this chaos, she is sunshine, and we couldn’t succeed without her. We are all building a school together.”
In her spare time, Crissy also exercises her creative side as a stylist with J. Hilburn, a custom-made men’s clothing company, where she helps busy professionals identify their personal fashion styles. She states that “When you put a man in a suit, he feels powerful, and when you make a man feel handsome, they are invincible.”
It is her love for early education and her family that continues to inspire Crissy to set new goals for her life and with Montessori Kids Universe. She is currently planning to open a second location in San Antonio, and she offers every one of her teachers the opportunity to become Montessori certified. She is driven and focused, but she is also humble and strives to live by the same tenets that her students are taught, grace, the manner in which we value and present ourselves, and courtesy, the ability to respect others and connect successfully with our fellow humans.