Year Awarded: 2016 Omaha Benson High School Social Studies Teacher

Every good teacher has to be a bit of a social worker.  Children learn best when their teacher understands and connects with the their social needs as well as their educational needs.  This year’s McAuliffe winner, Joe DiCostanzo, puts this principle into action with courage and excellence.  Joe’s principal said,  “He single handedly created a mentoring program for our male students at Benson.”  The program, called MENS for My Empowerment Network for Success, includes students from all four grades and meets as Joe’s homeroom class.  Students are recommend for the program because of the program’s ability to provide positive adult and peer connections and important continuity throughout the students’ Benson High experience. Recently Joe and six of the MENS group members were invited to present their stories at a conference sponsored by Harvard University.

In addition to a social work perspective, Joe has demonstrated how an excellent and courageous teacher can combine teaching with the roles of community organizer and activist.  Joe is all about connections. He serves as Vice President of the Benson Neighborhood Association and as Benson High’s community liaison.  He helped reinstate the Benson High homecoming parade through downtown Benson, increasing both the community’s connection to their High School and the student’s pride in themselves and their community. Joe has connected his students to the legislative process by having them study a bill to limit texting and driving, and then present their opinions to the legislative hearing.  Each year his class studies the civil rights era including clarifying changes the students feel are needed at Benson High and then planning and conducting demonstrations to advocate for change.  His students understand civil rights era protests from a perspective of their own experience with activism. 

[My students] know that a strong advocate is in their corner. . . . knowing they are not alone is a real necessity to create a life long learner. Joe DiCostanzo