Inside St. Augustine’s Huge Expansion
K4-12 private choice school adding new $49 million school building.
One of Milwaukee’s biggest and highest-performing schools is about to become substantially larger.
The private choice school, located at the intersection of S. 6th Street and W. Harrison Avenue in the Lincoln Village neighborhood, will be capable of housing 2,400 students across its elementary and high school buildings. A four-year growth plan aims to fill the campus.
“This next year, we are adding one class per grade level, with the exception of fifth grade, where we already had so many students on the wait list we actually have two,” said CEO Abby Andrietsch on a tour of the construction site. An additional round of classes will be added in the 2025-26 school year, with a plan of five classes per grade level and an elementary student body of 825 to 850.
The school opened in 2017 as a high school and for the last three years St. Augustine has operated with K4-12 students all in one building. The new building will result in space for each grade level to grow, in part by freeing up space in the existing 225,000-square-foot building. It will also allow Augustine Prep to augment the numerous athletic facilities in the high school with a number of art facilities in the new building.
A 606-seat theater with orchestra pit, theater management training facilities and auxiliary shop spaces will allow the school to establish a robust theater program. “It’s a space we want to share with the community,” said Andrietsch about the plan to allow outside groups to host events. The theater and purpose-built music rooms on the top floor of the three-story building will be shared across the entire student body. Middle school and high school students will cross the street to use the new facilities.
A new library will allow a smaller one in the high school to be converted to a family center. A full-size gymnasium is included in the middle of the new school. Atop the gym, an open-air deck and garden is being constructed in the middle of the third floor that will bring more natural light in and allow potential programming. “One of things we have learned in the first six years is people really value sunlight,” said Andrietsch. That’s visible in the classrooms, which mix sizable windows with wall space for displays. A suite of staff offices and parent meeting rooms can also be found in the new building.
The school’s religious focus is evident in a special room for its “Godly Play” curriculum. The school operates on a four-pillar model that includes faith, family, academics and athletics and arts.
High school students must pick one “major” in both the arts and in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), which leads to several outside engagement opportunities with partner organizations. “We figured out we don’t have to do it all. A lot of what we do is figure out how we can build partnerships to help our kids,” said Andrietsch.
The school was created by Gus Ramirez, Andrietsch’s father. The Ramirez family, which acquired and substantially grew 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.
But Andrietsch, who gave the tour in early June shortly after the school hosted a fundraising gala that raised $2.1 million, noted that the support now goes far beyond her extended family. For instance, the Milwaukee Bucks and Pat Connaughton are supporters of the new gym.
After the expansion opens, the middle school and high school grade levels will remain larger than elementary school grades.
“Sixth grade and ninth grade are two really strong transition points for students in Milwaukee,” she said, explaining how students can enter the St. Augustine system at multiple age levels. “High school grows the most because that’s where we see the most need.”
Within two miles of the campus, St. Augustine estimates there are 26,000 students in 12 schools. “About 17,000 of which are in mediocre or failing schools,” said the school CEO of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction‘s (DPI) school report cards.
Augustine Prep is a leader, with a 95% retention rate and a five-star rating from DPI, the highest level awarded.
But there isn’t a plan to try to build even more buildings.
“I want us to document the model in a way that’s easy to share with other schools,” said Andrietsch, who previously served as the executive director of Schools That Can Milwaukee, of what’s next. She said she’s also working to build out an endowment for the school, which would defray the cost of tuition for non-voucher students. The school spends about $12,000 per year per student, exceeding the public voucher by a couple thousand dollars.
At a June 2022 groundbreaking, 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.
Andrietsch said Augustine Prep works with student families to attempt to provide support. That includes supporting Acts Housing‘s homebuying counseling programs. “I am a deep believer in the stability of homeownership having a big impact on a community and a child’s life,” she said. The school does not provide busing, part of a strategy to increase parent engagement.
The Final Piece of the Block
The elementary school sits on a full-block site that wasn’t vacant when the project started.
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 a smaller 2019 vision, the school acquired three of those properties from the city for $500 each and will make a $20,000 annual payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) payment.
But after acquiring even more private parcels, Augustine Prep expanded the project to add more parking and the theater. But it couldn’t get the one remaining city-owned lot at the northwest corner of the block bounded by W. Arthur Ave., W. Harrison Ave., S. 5th St. and S. 5th Pl.
Ramirez, at the 2022 groundbreaking, pledged to continue to lobby Mayor Cavalier Johnson to acquire the property, once used as a community garden.
“That lot has not been maintained at all for at least the last year,” said Andrietsch during the June tour.
On Tuesday, the school got its wish. The Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee unanimously endorsed selling the lot for $500.
Parking will be built on the property, with outdoor play areas for students located between the parking lot and school. Owing to the slope of the site, the age-separated playgrounds are partially below grade, with concrete barriers that will eventually be covered by murals.
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