Joseph DiCostanzo, a social studies teacher and coach from Omaha Benson High School Magnet, is the recipient of the 2016 Christa McAuliffe Prize for Courage and Excellence in Education.
The College of Education and Human Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln presents the annual award to a Nebraska teacher who exemplifies the character of Christa McAuliffe, a teacher who died in the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster. DiCostanzo was recognized at a banquet March 13 on the UNL campus.
DiCostanzo, “Dico” to his students, is not a status quo educator. In fact, he’s the enemy of average.
“As educators, if we work toward the average, and not to reaching full potential, we are failing the future of our students and our country,” DiCostanzo said.
Working with a student population of high poverty makes achieving above-average results difficult. But his students, colleagues and the Benson community say DiCostanzo is relentless in his pursuit of excellence.
“His most genuine trait as an educator is his love of knowledge and students,” said Benson principal Anita Harkins. “His ability to gain respect of students, colleagues, parents and community members and create positive rapport is illuminating.”
Local pizza restaurant owner Amy Ryan credits DiCostanzo with elevating the community with his infectious drive for excellence.
“In literally every interaction I have had with Joe, I have found myself completely awed by his resolve and commitment to the service of others,” she said. “Benson has been a struggling community for many years and is recently on the rise as one of the best neighborhoods in the region because of his service. Truly, I’m not sure where Benson would be without Joe.”
He serves on the neighborhood association board and on the board for The Benson Theatre, a nonprofit working to renovate a local historic theater to support entrepreneurial education and creative performance. But DiCostanzo’s best performances are with his Benson students.
Football coach and business teacher Tony Kobza regards DiCostanzo as a relationship and trust builder among students.
“He has been able to reach students who may have felt that they were alone or destined for a certain life,” Kobza said. “Mr. DiCostanzo has shown incredible courage by finding positives in students who offer much different challenges than typical students, and it energizes him to help them reach their goals.”
DiCostanzo’s My Empowerment Network for Success program was developed to foster excellence in his students’ daily lives. Its seven areas of excellence in living are: greatness, academic excellence, integrity, accountability, self-determination, self-restraint and sobriety. The program’s virtues have been recognized by Harvard University, which invited DiCostanzo and six of his students to make a presentation about the mentorship program.
“I owe a lot of my success in life to Mr. DiCostanzo,” said former student Jerrell Moore, a youth sports director for the YMCA of Greater Omaha. “As a teacher, he taught me how important my education is. As a coach, he taught me to never give up on myself. Everything is possible if you believe and put in the effort. He has truly been a blessing to me.”
DiCostanzo said: “The philosophy that has guided my practice as an educator is to do whatever it takes to motivate, educate and empower our students and their communities. I work to help students understand failure is not an option, and I will be there to set that high standard and do whatever it takes to help them reach the goal of excellence. I must have the courage to stand up for every youngster, and their quest to resist the constant peer pressure, and help the child understand they are made for more; they are made for greatness.”
A graduate of UNL’s College of Education and Human Sciences, DiCostanzo is a man on a mission. He said he’s thankful that his teacher preparation program at UNL gave him opportunities to explore the type of teacher he wanted to become and helped guide his philosophy. He said he believes teachers engage in the most important work in the world.
Nomination information and additional details about the Christa McAuliffe Prize for Courage and Excellence in Education are available here.