Even the littlest dancers shake their stuff at the SHARP Literacy "Circle of Life" celebration.

The bad news about student literacy within Milwaukee Public Schools never ends. African American fourth graders in Wisconsin (most are students at MPS) have the lowest reading scores of black children in the country and only 38 percent of MPS tenth graders tested proficient or better in reading.

These statistics have led the school board and administration to reassess its reading curriculum. Currently MPS has over 17 different reading programs in use in its 198 schools. The multitude of reading curricula has hampered student progress due to the high percentage of school switching, where more then a third of students starting in one school are in a different school by the end of the year.

While MPS considers its options, SHARP Literacy has been quietly working throughout the city in public, private and charter schools to build a love of reading and overall literacy with exposure to the arts.

Founded in 1996, the Student Historical Art Resource Program began as an arts education outreach program in partnership with the Milwaukee Art Museum. Executive Director Marlene M. Doerr worked as a docent at the MAM where she realized that art sparked student’s imaginations. She worked with educators to develop a curriculum that used art as a vehicle to learn core subjects such as reading, writing, math and science. Over the years SHARP has served more than 48,000 students in 32 Milwaukee area schools.

An example of SHARP’s method is a partnership between the organization and the Forest County Potawatomi Community Foundation to present the Greater Milwaukee Circle of Life Project. The focus of the project was to eliminate discrimination by having children celebrate and teach their friends, teachers and parents about differing cultures by making use of the student’s artistic efforts while building reading, writing and research skills.

"Circle of Life" mural created by students enrolled in the SHARP Literacy program. This mural is on permanent display at the Alumni Memorial Union on the Marquette University campus. Photo courtesy of Marquette University.

In year one, the students worked together to design and create a mural titled, “Circle of Life,” focusing on the interconnectedness of all cultures. The piece is on display at Marquette University.

During the second year, students shared stories of their cultures and produced artwork that was made into a book focused on eliminating racism and discrimination. The following year SHARP brought students from a variety of cultural, racial and economic backgrounds to discuss their heritage and unique qualities. A DVD of their discussions was produced and is available for teachers to use in their classrooms.

The capstone of the Circle of Life Project was a live multicultural arts performance in Uihlein Hall at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts on May 24. Students of all ages took the stage to share their culture’s songs and dances to show that even though we are all different we also share commonalities that enrich and color our community.

Dancers from Escuela Vieau School exposed the audience to a variety of Hispanic offerings, while students from the Indian Community School demonstrated the idea of community with a Native American round dance and song. More dancers from the Hmong American Peace Academy brought the concept of peace and harmony to life with three dances from their culture. A plea for everyone in the audience came from students from Hartford University School, who sang  Agents of Change while choice students from St. Marcus Ev. Lutheran School bridged the German background of their school with their African American heritage, performing Ise O Luwak, a Yoruban chant.

To top off the evening, all of the performers sang Let’s Make a World. This song was a collaborative effort between all the schools in the program. The original song was composed by students from Escuela Vieau under the guidance of composer Connie Grauer (of MRS. FUN) and Present Music. The students suggested lyrics and melodies, while Grauer guided and filled in the orchestration. Once the chorus was completed, each of the five schools contributed a lyric about how they would like the world to become a better place.

The performance brought the audience to their feet and tears to their eyes.

All of the performances were a result of reading, writing and researching cultures and translating that information into a tangible artistic product. That process has been the goal of SHARP since the beginning and the results are tangible.

In a study conducted over two years with more than 4,000 students at 25 Milwaukee schools, it was determined that SHARP students read and write 40-70 percent better than students not taking part in the program. Another benefit developed from participating in SHARP, students have better interpersonal skills and appreciation for one another, leading to better behavior on field trips.

With such a fine example of success in reading and writing with Milwaukee’s students, why isn’t MPS replicating this everywhere? And why are MPS and other districts across the country eliminating arts education?

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