Child care in Austin is expensive and hard to find. Parents sign up on day care waiting lists long before their kids are even born. And the shortage is getting worse.
Escuelita del Alma offers something even harder to find: a chance for children to learn a second language.
“We’re like any other child care center, except that we do it all in Spanish for all the children, regardless of their background, their ethnicity,” owner Dina Flores said.
Inside, kids aged 2 months to 5 years are playing games, singing songs, learning words. Sometimes they cry while teachers comfort them. More often, they laugh and scream.
Most of the children are native English speakers, but many come from homes where Spanish is the first language.
Behind the main building, shielded from the view of the highway, students run around on a shaded playground. Misters cool them off.
“They made such a difference,” Flores said of the misters on a triple-digit day last month. “They make it possible for us to have the kiddos outside [later] in the summertime.”
Flores taught for decades at public schools in San Antonio and Austin. Eventually, she wanted to do her own thing. As a bilingual educator, the choice was obvious.
“It just makes so much sense to introduce young children to other languages,” Flores said. “We learn languages when we’re little.”
Now, the I-35 expansion through Central Austin is forcing the day care to relocate, throwing the child care arrangements for 200 kids into uncertainty.
TxDOT plans to start next year constructing two lanes in each direction from Ben White Boulevard to U.S. 290 East. The 8-mile stretch will see bridges rebuilt, sidewalks added and more than 54 acres of Austin absorbed into the highway.
Those acres include the land where Escuelita has operated since 2008. The upper decks are coming down, so the highway will be widened into spaces now occupied by homes and businesses.
Negotiations are underway to seize land through the process of eminent domain. A timeline for closing the deal with the owners of the two properties Escuelita rents is up in the air.
This isn’t the first time the day care has been forced to move by a high-dollar construction project.
Escuelita del Alma first opened on Congress Avenue near Second Street in January 2000. The startup day care grew to about 100 students.
After eight years, notice came. Escuelita would have to vacate the property, along with the legendary restaurant Las Manitas and Tesoros Trading Company, which sold folk art from around the world. They were kicked out to make room for the J.W. Marriott, an upscale hotel with 1,000 rooms and a rooftop pool.
“Now we’re being kicked out again because of the highway expansion,” Flores said.
Since 2008, at the newly leased location next to I-35, Escuelita has become twice as large. The highway funneled business into the child care center. So did nearby employers like the University of Texas and Saint David’s Medical Center. Some families live in the neighborhood.
“My really close friend sent three of her kids through Escuelita and had just rave reviews about the quality of the day care,” said Simone Salloum, the mother of an almost 3-year-old boy who has attended Escuelita since he was 6 months old. “That was a big selling point.”
“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to learn Spanish from a really young age and hopefully become fluent,” she said.
But not knowing where or when the day care will relocate is stressing out her family.
“We’re maintaining some low-level anxiety around it,” Salloum said. “We don’t want to panic. We don’t want to pull him out. We want to try to stay at Escuelita if they move, but realistically, certain locations are just not going to be feasible to travel to every day.”
Finding a new location
TxDOT doesn’t normally help businesses renting their space relocate. But the state is making exceptions for this project, said Heather Ashley-Nguyen, a director at TxDOT’s Austin District overseeing the project.
“We’ve been working on relocation assistance with [Escuelita] for probably over a year,” she told a panel of City Council members in late September. “We have teams that do this on all of our projects. There’s certain standards that we take, and that’s something that we do often.”
TxDOT wrote in a final environmental report that Escuelita could receive up to three and a half years of rental assistance if a new location costs more than the current one.
Even with the help, finding a new space has been hard, especially one close to the families it serves now.
“They’re trying. They’re really trying to work with Escuelita to help us to find another location,” Flores said. “It’s just child care centers are a very specialized type of building.”
Day cares have lots of requirements. Classrooms should be at ground level so children can evacuate quickly in an emergency. Outdoor space is a must; the state requires kids in day care get at least an hour of play outside each day. Day cares want parking for parents to drop off and pick up their kids.
TxDOT says it will work with business owners who want to stay in their buildings for a while after the state buys the property from the owner.
“It’s done on a case-by-case basis, and is based on project timelines,” TxDOT’s Brad Wheelis wrote in an email.
Even with relocation and rental assistance from TxDOT, Flores said she’s probably going to lose money, especially if Escuelita has to move far away and find new families.
“I was already ready to retire,” she said. “Then, boom. I get notified that we’re going to have to move again. Now, I’m going to have to delay the retirement. I’m losing a lot of sleep. I don’t know how successful we’re going to be.”
This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.
The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.
You're a community leader
And we’re honored you look to us for serious, in-depth news. You know a strong community needs local and dedicated watchdog reporting. We’re here for you and that won’t change. Now will you take the powerful next step and support our nonprofit news organization?
The Austin Monitor is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit and nonpartisan news organization. We are fully-local and cover the important issues and key decisions at the intersection between the local government and the community.