Mayor Thomas M. Menino


1. Briefly describe the structure of your program.

Voices of Love and Freedom (VLF) is a nonprofit educational organization that promotes a literature-based approach to literacy, values, and prevention. VLF helps students appreciate literature from around the world, develop their own voices as they learn to read and write, learn to use the values of love and freedom to guide their lives, and live healthy lives free of substance abuse and violence. VLF was recently recognized as the country’s best K-12 violence prevention program by Drug Strategies, a leading organization that rates drug and violence prevention programs. With the support of Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, Voices of Love and Freedom was adopted by the Boston Public Schools as a citywide model for character education and violence prevention. VLF is also being implemented in Memphis, New York City, and other urban schools across the country.

Voices of Love and Freedom believes that children who are engaged in caring, nurturing relationships (love) and are able to express themselves (freedom) will grow up to be literate and healthy adults. "Our answer is to place the emphasis on the student’s voice, to encourage and support the expression of ideas, feelings, and yearnings," says VLF’s founder, Professor Patrick Walker of Wheelock College. VLF accomplishes this by promoting a set of core skills and values through the reading and discussing of high quality multicultural literature. By combining multicultural literature with values, VLF is dramatically different from other prevention programs. Moving beyond "just say no," VLF teaches a child how to empathize with others, analyze situations, solve problems, and basically do the right thing -- so that when a risk taking moment occurs, the child will steer clear of violence and drugs in order to live up to the ideals instilled in their lives through the literature and personal relationships.

In VLF, students learn to solve conflicts by discussing and analyzing how characters in stories resolve conflicts and then by learning to use conflict resolution skills in their own personal relationships. VLF has developed conflict resolution exercises that may be used to both analyze a story or in hypothetical situations where students are asked to solve personal conflicts that are similar to those they might encounter in their own lives. This involves increasing the repertoire of strategies that students have for resolving a conflict, so that they are not forced to lean on violence as the only solution. One strategy VLF uses is the "ABC Approach," which Asks children to first identify the conflict, then to Brainstorm possible solutions, and finally to Choose the best solution to the conflict. While similar to other conflict resolution approaches, the VLF approach is imbedded in a high interest story which gives students the opportunity to develop problem solving approaches in a comfortable setting.

2. When was the program created and why?

Voices of Love and Freedom was developed in 1992 in response to a wave of crime and drugs that beset Boston neighborhoods and public schools. VLF’s founder, Patrick Walker, was concerned when the house next door to him became a crack house. "Watching young adults high on crack prompted me to think about what could be done to reach children early and comprehensively -- to prevent them from following the same self destructive behavior," says Dr. Walker.

Armed with research on effective prevention programs, Dr. Walker proposed a new approach -- an unprecedented and far-reaching school-based program emphasizing an ethical basis for building prevention skills through the use of multicultural literature in the classroom. After many months of discussion, planning, and fund raising, a pilot program began in the public schools in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. Today, after growing from a neighborhood-based pilot program to a comprehensive citywide program, VLF is reaching thousands of students, teachers, and family members across Boston and the nation.

3. How do you measure the program’s effectiveness?

Voices of Love and Freedom is being assessed by educators from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the City University of New York Graduate School. Pilot data collection and assessments suggest that VLF is having a strong impact on the development of students’ literacy, social skills, and health. Our assessments indicate that VLF students are more likely to resolve conflicts peacefully, engage more readily in critical thinking and literacy activities, and have strong relationships with peers and family members -- factors which are at the heart of successful literacy, character education, and prevention programs. In Memphis, where the Oakhaven Elementary School has been implementing the VLF literature program since 1994, a summative evaluation conducted by the University of Memphis demonstrated that "VLF is a catalyst within a school to focus faculty, staff, and students on thinking about and expanding alternative choices to violent behavior. If teachers use this strategy, they can expect more reading about peacebuilding issues, creation of a classroom community, reduction of violent cats in school, improved student relationships, and improvement of literacy skills."

4. How is the program financed?

Contributions from foundations and corporations, along with seed funding from the school departments where the program is being implemented, support Voices of Love and Freedom. Starting in 1998, VLF will generate commercial revenues from the sale of its curriculum materials and books to educators across the country, in partnership with the Perfection Learning Corporation, one of the country’s leading educational publishers.

5. How is the community involved in the program, if at all? How has the community responded to the program?

In Boston, VLF began as part of a community-wide response to drugs and violence in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood. Today, each school where VLF is being implemented uses the program as part of a school-family-community alliance to help coordinate the neighborhood’s response to drugs and violence. In the Memphis City Schools, for example, each school is developing a "whole school design model" that infuses VLF’s prevention goals throughout the entire school and community.

6. Contact Person:

Patrick Walker, Ph.D., Director, Voices of Love and Freedom, 67 Alleghany Street, Boston, MA 02120; 617-635-6434 (phone), 617-635-6422 (fax). Dr. Walker is also an education advisor to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.

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The United States Conference of Mayors

J. Thomas Cochran, Executive Director
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