Success in the city
Milwaukee Legate Zeus Rodriguez expands educational opportunities for Hispanic children
Zeus Rodriguez may have taken the most unconventional path ever into education.
The former certified surgical assistant ran a staffing agency that supplied temporary registered nurses to hospitals in Wisconsin. He then helped form a non-profit — Hispanics for School Choice — to advocate on behalf of Latino families who wanted more educational options for their children.
In 2011, Rodriguez accepted an offer to become president of St. Anthony School in Milwaukee, the largest K-12 Catholic school in the nation, despite not having previously worked in education.
“I had a lot of doubt in the beginning. My wife kept telling me, ‘You should do it,’ and I was laughing at her,” said Rodriguez, 40, a member of Legatus’ Milwaukee Chapter.
He had been working with the parish priest at St. Anthony Church to find a new school president when the priest and Rodriguez decided that he would assume the position.
He never looked back.
During Rodriguez’s four years as president, St. Anthony School’s enrollment grew by more than 33% to over 2,000 students. Many low- and middle-income families took advantage of Milwaukee’s voucher program to send their children to the school.
Situated in a heavily Hispanic area of the city, St. Anthony School expanded to include a full high school, a multilingual program, preschool and daycare services, and a new school governing board, among other improvements.
Rodriguez and his wife Dana also founded the Padre Pio Clinic, an onsite pediatric clinic at the school. Dana Rodriguez serves as the director of the clinic, which was Wisconsin’s first independent school/faith-based health care center.
In many ways, St. Anthony School became a true “community school.”
“I am in no way suggesting that someone else couldn’t have done as good a job or even better than I did,” said Rodriguez, who resigned from St. Anthony School on April 1 to focus on expanding Hispanics for School Choice. “Looking back, we are very proud of our work, and I am sure I was the right person at the right time.”
Rodriguez said he plans on expanding Hispanics for School Choice to other parts of the country, including Texas where there continues to be a struggle for a school choice program. The Texas legislature recently considered legislation to create an educational tax credit system to provide scholarships for mostly low-income students to attend private and parochial schools, but it failed to pass. “We plan on helping Latino families in Texas obtain more educational options,” Rodriguez said.
Advocating for school-choice programs, whether in the form of vouchers or educational tax credits, is among Rodriguez’s key goals to help provide a quality education to disadvantaged children — especially young Latino Catholics who are increasingly becoming the face of the nation and the Catholic Church in the United States.
“The vast majority of Hispanics are traditionally and culturally Catholic,” Rodriguez said. “So I would say that education in the Catholic tradition is very important for the future success and cultural preservation of the Hispanic community as a whole. Not to mention, it’s absolutely critical to the future of the American Catholic Church.”
Rodriguez said he is also planning to establish a network of faith-based schools rooted in Catholic tradition. People who know Rodriguez and his entrepreneurial spirit believe he will be successful in his endeavors to expand educational opportunities for children and their families.
“I think he understands that education is a human right, and that access to it is a fundamental right,” said Rachel Campos-Duffy, national spokesperson for The LIBRE Initiative, a nonprofit that educates and advocates for the economic empowerment of Hispanics through limited government, entrepreneurship and self-reliance.
Campos-Duffy, wife of Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.), worked with Rodriguez to create more economic and educational opportunities for Latinos in their home state. She toured St. Anthony School three times while Rodriguez was its president, and she walked away impressed.
“What Zeus has done there is truly remarkable and should be commended,” Campos-Duffy said. “That’s how good the school is. That’s how awesome, faithful and authentic it is. Zeus and I believe that our Catholic schools are a gem. They’re the jewel we have as a Church.”
Campos-Duffy added: “We also have to understand that a Catholic education is one of the greatest evangelistic tools the Church has.”
Rodriguez, who is also the Milwaukee chapter president of the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders (CALL), has the energy, passion and vision to accomplish his goals in education, said Diana Richardson Vela, CALL’s president and CEO.
“He shares his views in a very compelling way,” Vela said. “He doesn’t push people away. On the contrary, he makes them fall in love with his vision.”
Vela applauds Rodriguez’s efforts to make it easier for disadvantaged youths, especially Latinos, to attend quality Catholic schools.
“We believe that Catholic education is the best gift that any student and family can have,” Vela said.
Rodriguez, who grew up in Arizona, said he can relate to many of the kids he’s trying to help attend better schools.
“I grew up in a single-parent household with a single mom for most of the time — growing up in a bad part of town, around drugs and gangs” Rodriguez said. “For me, it’s not that I’m trying to give back to the community. It’s that I identify with a lot of the struggles that are going on.”
Rodriguez also grew up nominally Christian until he joined the Family Pentecostal Church in Wisconsin at age 17. Rodriguez described himself as a “fervent reader” of scripture who debated anyone who would listen — especially Catholics.
“At that point in my life, I sincerely thought all Catholics were going to hell,” Rodriguez said.
But after meeting his best friend and future Godfather, Mike Bubon, a numerary of Opus Dei and the director of the Layton Study Center in Milwaukee, Rodriguez would embark on a spiritual journey, studying the Church Fathers and the teachings of Pope St. John Paul II, which ultimately led Rodriguez to enter the Catholic Church in 2007.
“I was touched by God’s grace and He opened up my eyes to the truth I’d been fighting for many years,” said Rodriguez, who joined Legatus’ Milwaukee Chapter last year.
Rodriguez said he and his wife of 10 years, Dana, a nurse practitioner with a PhD, enjoy joining their fellow Legates for edification and fun.
“Being in Legatus helps people who are busy to have that work-life balance,” Rodriguez said. “You need to take time to stop and breathe, edify yourself in the faith with others who believe the same.”
BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.