Frank Costanzo has proven his effectiveness and dedication given his latest test on April 27. Costanzo, superintendent of the Tuscaloosa County (Ala.) School System for seven years, had seen many storms and tornadoes hit his district, but this was by far the worst. On the evening of April 27, just minutes after an F4 tornado ripped through the Holt area of Tuscaloosa County, Costanzo partnered with emergency personnel and opened a shelter at Holt Elementary School, whose roof was damaged but not its gymnasium, and set up a communications center. Holt High School was converted into a distribution center for aid and for area families.
Costanzo's calm, reliable leadership was vital to everyone in the community, according to Deputy Superintendent Barbara Spencer. "He spent most of the night at Holt and pulled together resources like people and school buses, and he put everyone on alert," she says. For example, Costanzo had school buses carry people in the community to shelters for food, water, clothing and a place to stay.
Over the following several days, school and county officials learned six other school buildings had suffered damage. Six school buses were damaged; one was destroyed. And six teachers and dozens of students lost their homes. The communications center at Holt included a triage area that was used by the county engineer, the public works department, and the University of Alabama's nursing and physician services.
Costanzo and his staff also connected families with community agencies. "I don't think anyone was prepared for this disaster, but I do think it's inherent in us as educators that we're going to meet the needs of our students and do what's best for them, and for the teachers and employees," he says.
The tornado was one of more than 100 that touched down in six Southern states on April 27, killing more than 350 people, 41 of whom died in Tuscaloosa alone. Tuscaloosa County, which is home to the University of Alabama, has 33 schools stretching over 1,340 square miles. It was so badly hit that President Obama visited the area on April 29 and specifically surveyed the damage at Holt. The cost to repair its roof, doors, windows and HVA C system will be nearly $6 million, although it will be covered by state insurance and FEMA. Obama met with Principal Debbie Crawford, and Costanzo personally thanked him for the visit.
Catering to Students
On May 3, the first day students returned to class, Costanzo made a commitment that school buses would pick up every child at a bus stop or shelter to get them back to school, even if they were displaced and living in another area in the county or attended the city school district (many city schools had been destroyed).
Tuscaloosa and other districts were excused by the state legislature for missing up to four or more days of school so that they could restore power to, clean up and repair damaged schools. "The big thing was getting a sense of normalcy back," Costanzo recalls. Toward that end, group and individual counseling were provided to students. "And we made sure teachers would be there to hug every child that got off the bus," Costanzo says. "Many children had some difficult times. And it's difficult to have instruction and also help children. But we've been able to do that."
In addition, the district is currently struggling with a loss of $34 million from the state and a loss of 55 out of 1,000 teachers for the next school year. "Our financial condition was so dire and desperate, and then to have a tragedy such as that - I think the contrast, the response of the public and the agencies to work with us during a very difficult time helped tremendously," he says.