Rising up from a 12-acre lot at South Fifth Street and West Harrison Avenue, St. Augustine Preparatory Academy, a non-denominational Christian school, launched this fall with more than 600 students in grades ranging from K4 to 9. The state-of-the-art complex includes a four-story academic wing of bright classrooms and labs, a 10-lane swimming pool, a gymnasium, outdoor and indoor soccer fields and a medical clinic. And seven houses on Harrison Avenue that could be knocked down for future expansion have already been purchased.
This is Agustin “Gus” Ramirez’s latest project and his first built from the ground up in Milwaukee. Through a family foundation, he has been investing in Christian schools in various parts of the world for 15 years. There are academies in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and South America, 94 in all. The Milwaukee-area businessman’s new endeavor is a large K4-12 school on the South Side, into which the foundation has poured $58 million and which will largely serve a growing Latino population.
The idea to build a new school in Milwaukee “came to me three to four years ago, and I sort of meditated on it,” says Ramirez. “I discussed it with the family [including three adult children], and there was some pushback in terms of putting so much money into one place versus spreading it around.”
St. Augustine has attracted some attention, and controversy, because of its size and its addition to an already competitive educational landscape. Ramirez hopes the academy – which is part of the state-funded Milwaukee Parental Choice Program that provides vouchers to students to attend private schools – will grow to about 1,700 students in its first four years by stressing faith, family, academics, athletics and the arts, he says.
Early in the school’s development, Ramirez ran into opposition from Milwaukee Ald. Tony Zielinski, who had hoped for some years to build an indoor community soccer field on the same piece of land.
“We’ve got other fine schools,” says Zielinski. “I felt there was a greater need for an indoor soccer field.”
Ramirez prevailed, however, rallying support from neighbors, politicians and other allies and winning land and zoning approval from the city.
Founding a large new choice school in Milwaukee naturally draws political opposition. At a recent Milwaukee School Board meeting, vice president Larry Miller, a voucher opponent, stated flatly, “Gus Ramirez is attempting to destroy public education in this city.” Choice schools take public money from MPS, Miller said. “There’s nothing public about his school.”
Ramirez attempts to use a broader taxonomy. “The state supports public, charter and choice schools, and we’re all public schools,” he says. Ramirez wants to provide a higher-performing alternative to MPS. “If that damages MPS,” he says, “it’s for them to respond as competitors and compete with excellence, not politics.”
Now executive chairman of Husco International in Waukesha, Ramirez took over the manufacturer of hydraulic controls in 1985 in a leveraged buyout and turned it into a $400-million private company before handing the job of CEO to his son, Austin, in 2011. Several members of Ramirez’s family have worked as teachers, including his wife, Becky, and daughter Anna. Gus’ father, an Army colonel, became a teacher after retiring from military service.
Ramirez was born on July 4, 1946, in Puerto Rico, and when he moved to the U.S. mainland with his family at the age of four, he didn’t speak a word of English. Both he and Becky attended Coral Gables High School in Miami, where Gus tried out for the basketball team but couldn’t get on. Undeterred, he made it on his second try. In his senior year, he was named most valuable player. “What I learned,” he says, “was that if you work hard, persevere and can take disappointment, it spurs you on.”
“We call that grit,” says Becky. “We want the children at [St. Augustine] to develop that ability to overcome and keep going.”
Ramirez went on to earn a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech and an M.B.A. from Harvard.
In the years since, the Agustin A. Ramirez Jr. Family Foundation has supported a variety of local educational efforts, and Gus’ daughter Abby Andrietsch runs Schools That Can Milwaukee, a non-profit working with educational leaders to improve schools. It was started with a $250,000 grant from the foundation.
The largest voucher school in the state, the 2,000-student St. Anthony School on South Fifth Street, is a competitor of St. Augustine. But José Vásquez, president of St. Anthony, says there’s room for both schools, “because there will be continued growth in the Latino birth rate,” he says.
“Knowing Gus as I do,” he adds, “he will want a school of excellence. It’s a call for the rest of us to improve.” ◆