Sullivan West’s ‘Happiness Project’ explores student passions

Posted 2/11/21

LAKE HUNTINGTON, NY — Jessica Schwalb and Zachary Stevenson, a couple of imaginative 17-year-old seniors at Sullivan West High School, believe in breaking down barriers, opening lines of …

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Sullivan West’s ‘Happiness Project’ explores student passions


LAKE HUNTINGTON, NY — Jessica Schwalb and Zachary Stevenson, a couple of imaginative 17-year-old seniors at Sullivan West High School, believe in breaking down barriers, opening lines of communication and friendship between students at the “Home of the Bulldogs.”

With this in mind, guided by their AP English teacher Billy Templeton, the pair of stellar students put their heads together and devised the “Happiness Project – Get Out the Passion” or G.O.T.P., in short, as a way of celebrating student differences. According to their presentation aired at a recent monthly board of education meeting, “Learning about the unique hobbies of our peers will nurture a åsense of interconnectedness within our community.”

In their presentation, the duo proclaimed, “Let us continue to make school a place that embraces individuality and let’s Get Out the Passion!”

On January 14, the two students and their teacher sat down in the high school principal’s office to talk about their innovative AP seminar project with the River Reporter.

Schwalb spelled out the mission of G.O.T.P. as giving their fellow classmates “greater confidence to ignite new conversations, and slowly disintegrate imaginary barriers. The peer dynamic of older students versus younger students, to bridge that traditional gap between sophomores and seniors.

“Without restriction on who a student can befriend, hunkering down during quarantine will feel less isolating,” she added, noting that participation in G.O.T.P. “will hopefully provide students with more opportunities for friendship.”

The project was born from a new, unique program, high school principal Mark Plescia explained. The AP Capstone Diploma Program is a two-year undertaking developed by the College Board. The predecessor to the program offered today is called the AP/Cambridge Capstone Program, which was first presented in 17 high schools around the globe, and is now offered in more than 1,100 schools with the support of more than 100 colleges and universities.

“It’s not an English course per se,” Templeton explained. “It incorporates aspects of psychology and history.... We started off by asking questions about consciousness, what is consciousness.... Then we started talking about mindfulness, exploring the nature of happiness, what it is, and through that process, we started talking about positive psychology issues [and]... decided on a project where we work together, how to bring positivity into school.”

With those goals in mind, students were tasked with coming up with a research-based project that would engage the student body to assist them in coping with the challenges of today’s world. 

The AP Seminar portion provides students the opportunity to develop critical thinking skills, as they explore real-world issues including innovation, sustainability and technology. AP Research focuses on students designing, planning and conducting a research-based investigation of a specific subject, and wraps up with an academic thesis paper and a public presentation of their work.

Schwalb and Stevenson teamed up to take on the AP Seminar project (a story about AP Research is scheduled to appear in a future edition of the River Reporter).

“Like the entire student body, we’ve been stuck at home for a long time, so I started brainstorming with Jessica, focusing on student participation, helping to spark random conversations,” said Stevenson of the project’s stated mission, basically painting a picture of the “genesis of it all.”

“We wanted to find something that would transcend the current problems we’re facing in the COVID-era, and I was really psyched after Jessica came up with the title, [the Happiness Project], and am really pleased with how our ideas meshed together. I’m looking forward to getting it started and [to getting] as many students involved as possible.”

A couple of summers ago, Schwalb took a course in positive psychology, presented by Martin Seligman, a widely known American psychologist, educator and author of self-help guides. A commonly accepted definition of positive psychology was penned in 2008, “It is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living... the scientific approach to studying human thoughts, feelings and behavior, with a focus on strengths as opposed to weaknesses,” she explained. 

According to Schwalb, the “central pillars” of Seligman’s theory of positive psychology inspired her to co-create the “Happiness Project – G.O.T.P.” with her senior classmate.

Although the number of pillars varies from source to source, Seligman’s theory of well-being lists them as “positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishments (PERMA).

“We focus on belonging, transcendence and finding a purpose in life. The real purpose of our project is to spark unlikely friendships,” said Schwalb. “Get your head up off your phone in the hallway and say ‘hello,’ get kids outside their cliques.”

As they continue to develop the AP Seminar project, described by Schwalb as “a safe environment that embraces individuality,” the duo plans to send out surveys to students in grades 10-12 seeking feedback. In the future, they plan to expand the scope of the project to encompass grades 7-12.

“We will create an invitation on the school website and then send out the ‘Option Talk Survey,’” formatted to gather students’ responses to a series of thoughtful questions so as to “get a sense of who they are. What are your top three passions?” she said.

“It will give Zachary and [me] insight into their interests and allow us to form groups of students with diverse hobbies... from ice-fishing to beekeeping. After forming these groups, students compose a set of questions that they can use to lead an exploratory discussion of their group members’ passions in the final Zoom meeting.”

Templeton noted that the primary challenge faced by high school students these days is a lack of consistency; Sullivan West students are in school two days a week and must study remotely for the rest of the school week.

Calling it “a big ask,” Templeton said that a complicating factor in the era of COVID-19 education is that a lot of families “are struggling in very different ways; jobs are hard to come by to put food on the table, and on top of that, students are asked to produce high-quality work.”

In taking a broader view of the student-driven endeavor, Templeton said, “Too often students work on projects without realizing that they have the ability to make a positive change in the world. Receiving outside attention teaches them a valuable lesson: what they do in school can make a difference in the community.”

To see more about the Happiness Project, including their presentation and a brief video, visit


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