WEST WARWICK — Walking through the front doors of West Warwick High School, it’s almost palpable.
“I feel like the whole vibe has changed,” Isabella Santilli, a senior at the school, said as she sat at a table across from her friend and classmate Paige Tomasso. “We’ll be sitting in class and somebody will say something, and another person will say, ‘choose love.’”
Having both helped lead the roll out this fall of the Choose Love Enrichment Program at West Warwick High School, Tomasso and Santilli on Thursday morning discussed the impetus behind bringing the social and emotional learning program to their school.
“At first we thought, what is ‘Choose Love?’ That was really the big question,” said Tomasso, who serves as the president of the school’s Choose Love leadership board.
What she quickly found, however, was that the program isn’t easily defined.
“It isn’t a club, or a set of words, or a student group,” Tomasso said, “it’s a movement.”
Founded by Scarlett Lewis, whose son was a victim in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting, the Choose Love Enrichment Program teaches students to “choose love in any circumstance,” according to the program’s website.
Just days before first-grader Jesse Lewis became one of the 26 who were killed in the shooting, he’d written on his family’s chalkboard the words “nurturing, healing, love” — a message that would become the genesis for his mother’s Choose Love Enrichment Program.
The program, now in schools around the world, emphasizes teaching to the whole child — “mind, heart and body” — by focusing on courage, gratitude, forgiveness and compassion. Each participating school receives a free social and emotional learning curriculum based on those four character values.
“What [the curriculum] does is it gets us all on the same page,” West Warwick High School Principal Jessica Hassell said. “The teachers, the students and the administration team are all speaking the same language and learning together as we go. That piece is huge.”
Hassell added that the program, supported in part by a grant from the West Warwick Health Equity Zone, agrees with many of the initiatives already in place at the school.
“We were already in a really good place,” she said, noting that the program helps marry the efforts of groups like the bullying prevention committee and the lunch task force.
The introduction of Choose Love into the high school will include dividing the four character values of the program among each of the quarters in the school year, Hassell added. During the first quarter, for example, the focus is on “courage.”
“We really started to think about those four character values, how they were meaningful to us, and what we wanted to do,” Hassell added, as she retrieved a Choose Love “courage” calendar that lists action steps “to show courage in your life.”
Tomasso said she was inspired to bring the Choose Love movement to West Warwick after a visit last year to South Kingstown High School, one of the first schools in the state to implement the program after its launch in 2017.
“I was really empowered to get this movement into our school,” she said. “I wanted nothing other than for this to be a part of what West Warwick High School is all about.”
Choose Love is about creating a school culture of positivity and inclusivity, Tomasso said. She and Santilli added that they hope every student who enters the building feels calm and welcome — they never want anyone to feel that they aren’t accepted.
“You don’t know what people are going through,” Tomasso said. “So why not [introduce a program] that makes people feel better.”
“Something that brings everyone together,” Santilli chimed in. “Makes everyone feel welcome.”
Tomasso and Santilli last spring helped form an inclusive group of around 70 students and a smaller leadership board that would work with administrators on establishing Choose Love in West Warwick.
“Once people started to hear more about it, they were like, ‘oh, how can I get involved with that?’” Santilli added.
The plan for rolling out the program came together during a summer planning session that included brainstorming ways to present the program to every teacher and student on the first day of school.
When students and faculty returned last month to West Warwick High School, they were greeted with a Choose Love introduction video. In the video, created by students from the school’s broadcasting club, members of all corners of the school community are seen dancing and laughing and making heart shapes with their hands.
“The video essentially unites most of the student body and our faculty,” Hassell said. “It demonstrates how we want the Choose Love vibe to feel.”
As for what the program actually looks like in West Warwick, it can be seen in a number of places.
Up and down the school’s hallways, posters list the four Choose Love values, and share messages like “you are just the student we hoped would show up.”
Music at lunchtime aims to incorporate fun into the program; morning announcements are infused with messages of positivity.
Each Friday a new Choose Love curriculum is delivered to teachers, and then on Monday, students are invited to participate in various passion-based clubs and projects — for example, knitting circles or mindfulness lessons.
“That really aligns with Choose Love and what we’re looking to do,” Hassell said, adding that it’s up to teachers to choose topics for those clubs based on what they’re passionate about. “Our teachers are being vulnerable enough to come forward and share their passions with their students.”
And though Tomasso and Santilli will graduate in the spring, they said they’re eager to see the program flourish in future years. They said they hope, too, that it can eventually be worked into the curricula at the town’s middle and elementary schools.
“I really want to get the whole district involved,” Tomasso said.
Hassell echoed that.
“The future is bright,” she said.