For Escuelita del Alma, History Prepares to Repeat Itself

Preschool and child care center on the move again?


Escuelita del Alma on June 27 (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The preschool and child care center Escuelita del Alma has been through a lot.

Educator Dina Flores founded Escuelita back in 2000, to serve the children of employees at Las Manitas Avenue Cafe, located next door on Congress Avenue. At the time, Las Manitas was a busy breakfast and lunch spot for Austin's progressive leaders, and the school – the city's only Spanish immersion preschool and only full-time Downtown child care provider – quickly developed its own following.

In 2006, however, the owner of the building that housed both Las Manitas and Escuelita decided to sell to White Lodging, the developer of what would become the JW Marriott. Many Austinites protested, and the city even set up a brand-new "iconic business" relocation fund to help Las Manitas. That ended up not happening, but in 2008 Flores was able to move Escuelita north to Cherrywood, on the northbound I-35 frontage road near 32nd Street.

The preschool has flourished in the years since, expanding to serve some 200 students daily. Now, however, history is set to repeat: With the Texas Dept. of Trans­port­a­tion preparing to rebuild I-35 through Cen­tral Austin – what it calls the Capital Express Central project – Escuelita del Alma is one of the 100 or so properties that TxDOT plans to acquire through eminent domain to enlarge the right-of-way. That plan is controversial, particularly in the Cher­ry­wood neighborhood, but is approaching its point of no return. So Escuelita faces a second displacement at a time when skyrocketing real estate costs have made moving to stay in business a daunting proposition.

In its more than two decades, Escuelita del Alma has carved out a reputation as a notable carrier of culture and community. When its existence was threatened by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, community members raised more than $73,000 in a GoFundMe campaign to keep the school open. "It's important in terms of language development; it's important in terms of recognizing and celebrating diversity, especially in terms of the Latino and Latinx population of the city; [and] it's important in promoting the messages and the need for being able to communicate with people across language barriers," Assistant Director Jaime Cano said.


The original Escuelita del Alma back in 2003 (Photo by John Anderson)

Anni Lidenberg Knox, a parent of two children at Escuelita del Alma, said that the immersion program drew her to the school – her son now speaks as much Spanish as he does English – but that the value of the school goes beyond what it teaches. "The whole basis of this school is this idea that you are part of a community," she said. "It doesn't feel like a sterile environment. You walk in and feel like your kid can run around and be at home … There's just a warmth to it that I've not experienced at other places."

“We entered into this [current] lease with an affordable rate, and that’s just not the case anymore in Austin. So we do have worries about that. It’s difficult, because this is the second time that we’re being displaced due to some development project.” – Escuelita Assistant Director Jaime Cano

Austin, like many major cities, is already short on child care options, and Escuelita del Alma is one of the biggest child care centers in the city. Cano said that the school gets 10 messages each day from parents seeking to add their children to a waitlist that, depending on age group, is two to three-and-a-half years long.

The school has already started exploring potential sites for relocation, but it's been tough sledding thus far. Cano said that the school wants to remain within a few miles of its current location to keep it accessible for its existing families, but that the real estate market may make that impossible. "We entered into this [current] lease with an affordable rate, and that's just not the case anymore in Austin," Cano said. "So we do have worries about that. It's difficult, because this is the second time that we're being displaced due to some development project."

Austin's unaffordability has impacted the school in other ways, too. Cano said that with teachers increasingly priced out of Austin, recruitment of new staff has been a challenge. The school's families have not been immune to rising costs either, and some of their homes are also within TxDOT's proposed I-35 right-of-way. Matt Rutledge, a parent who called Escuelita a "pillar in the community" in an email to the Chronicle, wrote that the I-35 project will not only cost him his day care but also "encroach further into my neighborhood."

The vagaries of the timeline of the I-35 rebuild are also presenting challenges for staff. "It's difficult with the timing, because we're not exactly sure – and I don't even think TxDOT knows – when we would have to vacate the premises," Cano said. "We can't really sign anything or do anything until we have the final word of when we'd have to vacate."

Cano said that there is no guarantee that Escuelita del Alma will remain open. And even if it does find another location, that site will likely be even further from the city center and require retrofitting that the school is hoping TxDOT will finance. For a school that began in the heart of Downtown within sight of the Texas Capitol, the symbolism of its successive displacements is hard to miss.

"I do feel like some of the core values of what I think Austin represents to a lot of people are getting watered down in lots of ways through these sorts of big expansion projects that take away these little gems of what makes Austin unique," Knox said. "I think Escuelita is just that: It is kind of this little gem."

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