High School

The Positivity Project: A Unifying Initiative at Cohoes High School

By Robert Santarcangelo

Our journey towards becoming a Positivity Project (P2) Partner School began in December of 2020. It was at that point that conversations were in their infancy in terms of how we will help students reacclimate themselves to (what we hoped at the time) a 2021-2022 school year that would see them back in school full-time. At this point, the negative ramifications of the pandemic’s impact on mental health were becoming more and more clear and we simply knew we had to do something. A group of teachers, social workers, and administrators set to work researching various social-emotional learning programs. Throughout this process, our main focus was finding a product that was going to positively impact our building, provide support for everyone’s well-being, and a product that was accessible to our teachers. In the end, we heard and discovered that The Positivity Project was the program that most aligned with our hopes and expectations. 

We are implementing P2 in our classrooms with a systematic approach so that our students regularly hear and learn about the power of positive relationships. Each department is assigned a specific day to implement the P2 character strengths and teachers use the first five to 15 minutes of their classes to discuss the character strength with their students. Many of our teachers have found the materials to be relatively easy to implement. Some of our more motivated teachers have incorporated it into their daily instruction by aligning the character strength to concepts that they address in class. For example, the “being present” character strength has been used by teachers to help mitigate cell phone usage or as a phrase to use to keep students engaged. Speaking with a colleague, they liked how the character strengths can be used to help explain to students the reason(s) as to why anti-social behavior is unacceptable in school and society. 

It is still too early to determine the level at which P2 has impacted the dynamic of our school. However, in terms of the teachers, we have never had such a unifying initiative as this. Sure there are programmatic and content-specific initiatives, yet we have never experienced a building-wide curricular initiative such as The Positivity Project. One of the unintended consequences has been the ability for us to break down the silos that exist between the various departments. The pandemic, and its impact, forced us all into isolation. P2 has given us something positive to discuss with each other. It was genuinely uplifting to discuss with my colleagues something positive that we can do for students rather than talking about what the learning gaps are going to be or how severe the mental health challenges are going to be. For students, I have seen some of our quieter students become more engaged with our conversations. Recently, one of our special education teachers approached me about how P2 was going with his Resource class. He explained that they love P2 and that their conversations have been remarkable. He went on to say that his group is typically a very shy group of students, yet he is seeing them feel more comfortable speaking in class and that this gives them the courage to speak in their larger classes. 

One of the key ideas that we addressed when rolling out The Positivity Project to our staff is that this is a long-term process, something we will continue to work on throughout the year. Last week, we listened and acted upon some of the concerns of our teachers in that they struggle with implementing the materials as is. We worked as a team to combine the P2 materials with content we developed that will help make this process even easier. We have a healthy amount of diversity within our school population and we wanted this to be clearer with our P2 materials. Combining the thoughts from our teachers and the demographics of our student population, we created open-ended questions along with quotations for students to analyze. The quotations come from people of various ethnicities and backgrounds who match our students. We want them to know that people with who they share cultural backgrounds also believe in these same character strengths. Furthermore, we ask our students to follow the Tiger Way here at Cohoes High School. Part of the materials we added to P2 asks students to consider how the character strengths match what we believe to be the Tiger Way. It all relates together. Our Tiger Way and P2 emphasize the characteristics we want our students to embody and/or work on developing.

To my last point, P2 matters to me and our school because we are incorporating these ideas into our vision for who we believe students should strive to become. P2 provided us with something positive to do for our students. It seemed like the 2020-2021 school year was filled with decision after decision that negatively impacted students and the majority of these decisions were beyond our control. The P2 project matters to us because it is something good for students and it is something that we can control. The Positivity Project has helped to bring teachers together again and has quite literally provided all the people in our building with something positive. 

Robert Santarcangelo

  Robert  currently serves as the Dean of Students at Cohoes High School as well as the Teacher Leader of the Social Studies Department. This is his 12th year working in the district and prior to his role as Dean of Students, he taught Social Studies and Psychology. Robert is currently pursuing a Certificate of Advanced Study in Educational Administration at SUNY New Paltz, has obtained his Masters of Curriculum & Instruction from SUNY Oswego where he also received my Bachelor Degree in Adolescent Education. One of the main motivations for working with and implementing the Positivity Project was to provide Cohoes with a structured Social-Emotional Learning program. There was an overwhelming realization, which inspired a sense of purpose, in that the district wanted to provide positive experiences for the students and staff members. As an educational institution Cohoes is focused on academics but understands that the function is also to provide students with the skill set that is needed to succeed in their future endeavors. The Positivity Project gives Cohoes students the opportunity to provide the support that their teachers need in order to help their students become well-rounded individuals. Outside of my his role in education, Robert enjoys spending time at home with his wife and two children. They love working on their gardens, going for hikes, and traveling to visit family.