Jeramey Jannene
Friday Photos

St. Augustine’s New Elementary School Quickly Rising

St. Augustine will be the largest single-campus school in Milwaukee when building is completed this fall.

By - Jan 13th, 2023 01:02 pm
St. Augustine Preparatory Elementary School construction. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

St. Augustine Preparatory Elementary School construction. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A new elementary school is taking shape on Milwaukee’s South Side.

St. Augustine Preparatory Academy, a private choice school created by Gus Ramirez, is constructing a $49 million school across the street from its first building at S. 6th St. and W. Harrison Ave. The three-story, 123,000-square-foot elementary school will add capacity for 900 students. It joins a 225,000-square-foot building completed in 2017.

When complete later this year, the two buildings will have a combined K4 through 12th grade capacity of 2,400 students. It will be the largest single-campus school in the city.

When it was announced in 2019, the new building was originally only to fill part of the block bounded by W. Arthur Ave., W. Harrison Ave., S. 5th St. and S. 5th Pl. But the building was expanded following the acquisition of more property. It will include a 700-seat theater, full-sized gymnasium, classrooms, special education spaces, a small gym, rooftop garden and playground.

VJS Construction Services is constructing the new building. Korb + Associates Architects is designing the school.

The Ramirez family, which founded Husco International, donates millions to the school annually, supplementing the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program’s $8,500 per student voucher. It will cover an estimated 80% of the cost of the new building, with the remainder coming from New Market Tax Credits and private fundraising.

Augustine Prep is a leader among choice schools, with a 95% retention rate and a five-star rating from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. The school operates on a four-pillar model that includes faith, family, academics and athletics and arts.

At a June 2022 groundbreaking, school CEO Abby Andrietsch said 91% of the students are of Hispanic descent, but a family-tree research project revealed those students can trace their family’s origin back to more than 40 different countries. More than 80% of the students come from four neighboring ZIP codes. Eighty-seven percent come from low-income households that qualify for free or reduced lunch. Approximately 8% participate in the school’s special education program.

The existing school building will also be expanded as part of the project. That includes reconfiguring it to host only the middle and high school students, which will yield approximately 5,000 square feet of space that will be used for added athletic facilities and a family engagement center. The existing 11.5-acre site, located just west of Interstate 94, includes a turf soccer field and Olympic-sized pool that are heavily utilized by community groups.

School’s Development Yields Interesting Public Policy Question

In the abstract, the construction of a new, high-performing school is a major win for the neighborhood and Milwaukee. But even before debating the merits of public, choice and charter schools, the St. Augustine elementary school poses an interesting public policy question: should cities allow entire blocks of houses to be leveled for new schools?

The simple answer is no if, as Mayor Cavalier Johnson has professed, Milwaukee’s goals are to reach one million residents and grow its tax base. Demolishing houses would achieve the opposite. There is, however, a counterargument to be made that a school as high performing as St. Augustine increases the desirability of the surrounding neighborhoods and reduces the number of families that might otherwise move to the suburbs.

To create the site for the elementary school, an entire block of approximately 30 homes was purchased and demolished for a total of approximately $2 million. As part of its smaller, 2019 vision, the school acquired three properties from the city for $500 each and will make a $20,000 annual payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) payment. At the groundbreaking, Ramirez said the school would like to acquire the one parcel it doesn’t own, a city-owned garden at the northwest corner, but no proposal is currently pending before the Common Council to approve a transfer.

In 2019 an additional seven homes along the south side of W. Harrison Ave. were demolished and the underlying land was incorporated into the school’s parking lot. The site would have fit the school building, but Andrietsch told Urban Milwaukee in June that the parking lot area plays a key role in the pickup and dropoff process and there are already traffic backups. The school does not provide busing.

Assembling land for the original building also involved demolition, though much of that site was disused industrial land. The school was built on an eight-acre site that once housed a train yard for the Chicago, North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad, and more recently, a trucking facility. It also included an industrial property.

Finding a large, mostly-vacant site on the dense south side would have posed a challenge for St. Augustine or any other operator. There are few vacant lots. In addition, the lone vacant, southside Milwaukee Public Schools building listed for sale in recent years was sold to another school operator. The north side of the city, which has more vacant lots and vacant or underutilized industrial properties, presents more opportunities for large-scale development.

For more on the houses that were demolished to former the elementary school site, see our January 2021 coverage.


2020 Demolition Photos

2022 Renderings

2019 Renderings and Site Plan

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One thought on “Friday Photos: St. Augustine’s New Elementary School Quickly Rising”

  1. Mingus says:

    Every billionaire needs a vanity hobby. Gus Ramierez can promote his version of Jesus for these 2400 students at the cost to the taxpayers of over $20,000,000 each year. This budget is larger than most public school districts. As with other choice schools, there is no real accountability or open records laws that all public schools are required to meet. Elected Republican officials want to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars more with expanded school choice while cutting funding for public education. It won’t be long where this school will be come an elitist institution where only high performing students will be welcome.

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