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PALACE CITY PROFILES: Zajic family puts down roots in Mitchell

Zajic family, LtoR: Riley, Kaci, Justin and Nikayda. ( Photo credit / Krista Citrowske Photography )

Palace City Profiles is an ongoing series of community members' stories, introducing us to our neighbors and the individuals who live and/or work in Mitchell. If you have suggestions for individuals or families with a great story, contact Lori Essig at lessig@mitchellsd.org.

Justin and Kacie Zajic (pronounced "zites") assumed they'd move to Mitchell where Justin would teach for a few years, and then they'd move on. Ten years and two children later, they have put down roots, figuratively and literally, including a plot at the Mitchell Community Garden.

Justin and Kacie, originally from Canby, Minnesota, married in 2007, shortly before graduating from Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Minnesota. Justin's degree is in social science education, and Kacie's is in music performance. Justin eventually earned three additional degrees, culminating with a doctorate in education.

Before they started their family, Kacie worked at the Abbott House and then at Cabela's as the events coordinator, but when their now-7-year-old daughter, Nikayda, came along, Kacie decided to teach piano lessons in their home. Because she prefers one-on-one education to a classroom setting, the arrangement has worked well, allowing her to be home with Nikayda and 3-year-old Ridley. She is the vice president of the Longfellow PTO, plays clarinet in the Mitchell Municipal Band and plays league softball.

In 2008, Justin took a position teaching seventh- and eighth-grade social studies at Mitchell Middle School. During his four years in that role, he also taught some evening classes in the education department at Dakota Wesleyan University. When DWU had a full-time opening in the department, Justin joined the faculty there.

Two years later, another opportunity presented itself, and he was hired as the principal at MMS, where he has remained for the past four years.

While some might cringe at working with adolescents, it suits Justin just fine.

"I think middle school is the most fun," he said. "Kids in middle school have the enthusiasm of elementary students, but you can have adult conversations with them like you can with high-schoolers. They are the best of both."

He finds the biggest challenges in education to be ensuring that both the faculty and the students have the support and resources they need, especially with tools and technology. This summer, Justin is excited to be planning the installation of a new career and technical education lab that will be used with eighth-graders beginning this fall.

"Because we received a significant matching grant from the South Dakota Department of Education," he said, "we will create a program that will better align with the Mitchell Career and Technical Education Academy, offering students career exploration via hands-on activities."

Some of the areas students will be able to explore include electricity, electronics and circuitry; pneumatics; mechanics and structures; robotics; laser technology; software engineering; design, charts, graphs and data analysis; and computer programming.

As a principal, Justin works year-round. However, the family finds time to enjoy activities together. They like to explore various parks in Mitchell, they ride their bicycles, and they maintain their garden plot.

Nikayda is an enthusiastic, talkative girl, who is happy that the Corn Palace is in Mitchell for her family to enjoy whenever they like. She loves to fish, she is an avid reader who creates her own illustrated stories and has her own blog, and she enjoys tending their veggies.

"We have zucchini, pumpkins, tomatoes and peppers," she said.

Ridley, who turns 4 in July, defers to his big sister. He likes to swim and to help in the kitchen when it's time to prepare their produce, and he enjoys playing Minecraft.

Justin and Kacie agree that Mitchell has ended up being a great place to grow their family. Though they've had opportunities to move, they say they haven't found a good reason to leave.

"I like to hunt and fish, and as a family we enjoy camping," said Justin. "It seems like we are in the perfect location to do all of those things without having to travel very far."

"Growing up in a small town, I especially appreciate all that the schools in Mitchell have to offer," said Kacie. "I was thrilled that Mitchell has a marching band; I would have loved having that opportunity growing up. A good music program is a positive for a community."

The Zajic family life is grounded in education, music, gardening and other fun family activities that have allowed them to flourish as Mitchell residents.

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