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In 1994, Marlene Doerr Kreilkamp, a docent at the Milwaukee Art Museum, had a moment of inspiration that led to SHARP Literacy’s beginning two years later. Intrigued by the idea that art has the power to inspire student achievement, she worked to create an arts-based literacy program that operated in 13 schools with 900 students. SHARP Literacy was subsequently incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit educational organization.

The original program’s signature feature was a field trip to the Milwaukee Art Museum. Because teachers recognized the program’s value, they encouraged Marlene to expand the in-school, arts-based literacy program to meet the changing needs of students and the community. Current President and CEO, Lynda Kohler, assumed the leadership for SHARP in 2012 when Marlene retired.

Through innovative STEAM-based experiential programs, SHARP partners with educators, fostering a love of learning and brightening futures for K3 through fifth grade students. The STEAM core program teaches K3-5th grade students STEAM concepts through arts integration while promoting curiosity, discovery, communication and perseverance. In the Design Through Code (DTC) program, students learn about coding fundamentals through both offline and online activities. By building knowledge and understanding in different ways, these lessons create an engaging and collaborative classroom environment.   

It includes a number of notable features: Fourteen We Love to Learn books have been researched, written and illustrated by students and a number are used as major components of the SHARP curriculum. Over the last 23 years, more than 20 mosaic murals in prominent Milwaukee and Waukesha locations and even a mosaic park bench were created by students with the guidance and assistance of an artist in residence. The “A Book in Every Child’s Hands” initiative, the starter piece to help each child build a personal library, provided more than 50,000 books to students at no charge.

SHARP continues to progress, expanding beyond the classroom to partner with community organizations. The original field trip to the Milwaukee Art Museum for grades 2-5 has grown into an educational tour for grades K3 through grade 5 at different locations in Milwaukee, Racine, Waukesha and Washington Counties. SHARP is now a year-round program that can be fully integrated into existing school curricula. SHARP provides all materials for each lesson that corresponds with Wisconsin state-mandated curricula and is aligned with the Milwaukee Public School district’s Comprehensive Literacy Plan and the Common Core Standards. Currently, the SHARP program is in more than 40 public, choice and charter schools and reaches more than 8,600 K3-5th grade students and teachers.

In addition to the core SHARP program that operates during the traditional school year, SHARP is now involved with coding, after-school programs, summer programs, and an intergenerational program in which seniors and school children read to each other. Other partnerships within the community include the Reading with the Golden Eagles and Reading with the Pios programs where Marquette and Carroll University men’s basketball team members read to students.

SHARP Literacy continues to seek new and innovative partnerships and projects to achieve its mission.