UPTOWN — Last year, Jacques Agbobly told his eighth-grade social studies teacher that he had been admitted to the prestigious Chicago Academy for the Arts, but it would be a struggle for his family to pay the tuition, despite a scholarship and financial aid from the academy.
His teacher, Anita Zajac, responded to the 15-year-old aspiring artist and fashion designer’s dilemma by starting a fund on his behalf and gathering more than $1,000 that helped him start school.
“I didn’t know someone who wasn’t your family could care so much about what you do,” Agbobly said.
Zajac, 46, is a popular middle school teacher at Stockton Elementary School, 4420 N. Beacon St., who has a reputation among students and staff for going outside the classroom to help students, who she urges to make a difference in their community.
Zajac believes classroom instruction can only provide a fragment of the knowledge her students need.
“It’s important that they get involved in the other aspect of social studies, which is what’s going on today and how they can make an impact,” she said.
Zajac grew up in Norwood Park on the Northwest Side. Soft-spoken, patient and prone to smile, she is a single mom with two adult children: Devin, 23 and Nina, 22.
She started teaching in 1995 at Hughes Elementary School in North Lawndale on the West Side. She taught fourth grade there for eight years before moving to Stockton.
At Stockton, she has forged supportive relationships with homeless students and gathered donations on their behalf. Zajac is also praised for doing things like driving students home from after-school programs when a parent couldn't make it.
She went even further in 2010, when she heard that one of her seventh grade students had been shot twice in the leg in a possible gang-related shooting. She volunteered to home-school him at his family's Uptown apartment, which was not far from the scene of the crime.
She did it despite concerns for her safety expressed by Zajac's mother and others, who were worried about her walking there alone at night. But Zajac said it was worth the risk. She was able to help the student keep up with his studies, and was able to relay messages from classmates and teachers that raised his spirits.
Three of Zajac's former students, including Agbobly, were honored recently for organizing an anti-bullying and gay and transgender issues assembly at Stockton in December that resulted from a service-project connected to her class.
Stockton Principal Jill Marie Besenjak said Zajac is a “dream to have on staff" who goes "above and beyond" her job description. Besenjak said Zajac helps students apply for high school, advises the student council and seeks grants for after-school programs, which she also coordinates for the entire school.
Besenjak also credits Zajac for bringing the HEART program to Stockton, which promotes humane education.
HEART instructor Bob Schwalb said Zajac was one of the first Chicago educators who invited him to a CPS classroom when the New York-based program expanded here in 2009.
CPS needs more teachers like her “who understand that these kids need some extra help, and some extra love," Schwalb said.
But along with the loving environment she provides at school, Zajac often has to remind her more troubled students that the world outside Stockton might not be so forgiving.
“In my classroom, you can redeem yourself. You can have another chance," she said. "'But in the real world, that’s not always going to happen.”