It’s not often that someone builds a brand new school in Milwaukee. But it’s going to happen soon on the south side. St. Augustine Preparatory Academy will open on 5th Avenue, west of Interstate 94, in summer of 2017.
When Waukesha businessman Gus Ramirez looked at Milwaukee’s educational landscape, he saw a need for better schools.
“About half of the Milwaukee students in all sectors – public, charter and choice – are going to awful schools. Not just bad, but awful schools,” Ramirez reflects. “We’re one of the worst in the country.”
So Ramirez decided to raise upwards of $80 million to create St. Augustine Preparatory Academy. Its 11-acre campus will open later next year. And over the first five years, the private, K-12 voucher school is expected to accommodate up to 1,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. That size would make it the second-largest private school in Milwaukee’s school choice, or voucher program, after St. Anthony.
And like St. Anthony, Ramirez and his school leaders envision serving many students of Latino heritage.
“With success will breed reputation, with reputation will bring students from all over the city,” says Nathan Carlberg, St. Augustine’s incoming elementary school principal. “That will bring some diversity in a sector of our city where it’s desperately, desperately needed.”
The planners believe Latino students benefit when they have options of schools to attend, including some that address their specific needs.
Enrique Figueroa agrees. He’s director of the Roberto Hernandez Center at UW-Milwaukee. He says Latino students and their families face a number of unique issues, beginning with communication.
“It’s two words: bilingualism and biculturalism, primarily because a lot of parents do not speak English,” Figueroa explains. “If the school reflects ethnically and culturally, and language-wise, what you feel is part of your community, then clearly you’re going to be more engaged in sustaining that.”
A survey released this week backs Figueroa’s theory.
The Leadership Conference Education Fund, a national coalition of civil rights groups, asked the parents of 400 Latino and 400 African-American students, what they thought of their kids’ public school education. The majority of parents surveyed – including 45 percent of Latino parents -- said they don’t think their kids get an equal opportunity in public schools.
In MPS, Latino children account for about one-quarter of enrollment, a number that has grown over the past several years.
This new venture at St. Augustine aims to become the latest – and one of the biggest -- to address the educational needs of the city’s Latino residents.
The south side is already home to at least three non-public schools serving a large swath of Milwaukee’s Latino community -- Nativity Jesuit, Bruce Guadalupe Community School and St. Anthony, the largest Catholic and voucher school in the city.
St. Anthony’s President Jose Vàsquez says he welcomes the addition of St. Augustine, and the healthy level of competition it will inject.
“We anticipate that St. Augustine will be a school of excellence, which means all the rest of us have to [bring] up our standards to the standards that are going to be set by St. Augustine,” Vasquez says.
Adding St. Augustine to the mix could pose a threat to enrollments. Yet UWM’s Enrique Figueroa says St. Anthony in particular has a long waiting list – which implies there is continuing demand from Latino households. And he thinks he knows where the students are coming from.
“If you open a new school, how many of those came from MPS as compared to how many came from an existing charter or choice school?” Figueroa asks. “The data clearly shows that MPS has been losing kids, and the charter and choice schools have been growing. So the implication is that most of that growth has come from kids leaving MPS.”
St. Augustine founder Gus Ramirez says he wants his school to be collaborative, not competitive, but he anticipates it offering a better option than what some kids have now.
“There’s more than enough kids. [The] south side of Milwaukee is growing, that’s not a question,” Ramirez says. “The issue is we don’t have enough good schools.”
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett attended a St. Augustine launch event Tuesday evening, and says he welcomes the addition of a voucher like St. Augustine to the city’s school landscape, regardless of any perceived impact it might have on other schools -- public, charter or voucher.
“It’s wrong to turn your back on good operators who provide children with a good education,” Barrett said. “Because at the end of the day, what we all have to recognize is that we are talking about the future of this city.”
Construction has begun on St. Augustine’s location on S. 5th Street. The school plans, in the fall of 2017, to open to students in grades K-4 through second, as well as sixth through ninth.