Escuelita del Alma was founded by Dina Flores in 2000 to provide childcare for employees of Las Manitas, the legendary Congress Avenue cafe owned by Dina’s partner, Cynthia Perez and Cynthia’s sister, Lidia Perez. At the time it was one of the city’s only Spanish-immersion preschool programs, and the only full-time downtown childcare center. During the daycare’s early years when 100 children attended Escuelita, their lunches and snacks were prepared at Las Manitas and they learned about art at the La Peña Gallery next door. Every Halloween the children would go Trick or Treating at downtown businesses and City Hall.
Dina Flores has been the director of the school she founded since 2000, and a dedicated educator since 1979, teaching kindergarten, mostly bilingual, in public schools in Austin and San Antonio for fifteen years. She earned a bachelor’s degree in bilingual elementary education and a master’s degree in early childhood education. The only break in her teaching career was from 1994 – 2000, when Flores was bookkeeper of Las Manitas. It was there that she noticed the need for a good downtown childcare center, and opened one next door.
In 2006, the owners of the 200 block of Congress Avenue, which housed both Las Manitas and Escuelita del Alma, decided to sell to Marriott International; the plans would displace both businesses. There was a public outcry against the prospect, and members of the city council wrote a letter to Marriott’s chairman and CEO that included the following:
“Las Manitas, Escuelita del Alma, and Tesoros are revered local institutions which have significant cultural and historic value to our community. It is a source of pride that these institutions have grown up locally and thrived on Congress Avenue, one of the most high-profile, historic streets in Texas. These businesses are — and they are representative of — what makes Austin a unique and special place. Losing them is simply a losing proposition for everyone involved.”
One of the fundraisers to save the school during this time included performances by Alejandro Escovedo, James McMurtry, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Ruben Ramos, Grupo Fantasma, and Patty Griffin. Escuelita students have included the children of musicians Alejandro Escovedo, Grupo Fantasma, and The Black Pumas, along with restaurant workers, local business owners, and public servants.
In the end, the building was set to be razed and in 2008, Dina moved Escuelita to the current building at 32nd Street and I-35, bringing along more than 150 families and a three-year waiting list. In 2014, the school expanded across 32nd Street to enable more families to send their children to the school. By early 2020, an average of 190 students attended Escuelita daily.
Many of the teachers have been at Escuelita for decades, and some of them are even related to each other–making this “Little School of the Soul” feel even more like a family.
Having worked for sixteen years in the public schools with young children has given me the desire to open a center where I can implement curriculum and instructional methods which I believe are appropriate and best for children. While working with four and five year-olds has been extremely rewarding, I have always desired to work with younger children. I believe in using every possible opportunity to encourage development and growth, from before birth through the pre-kindergarten years.
A major reason for opening this learning center has been the desire to have more educational “continuity” with my students. As a teacher it was frustrating to be interrupted by “vacation” just when the children were reaching peaks of tremendous learning and “community building”. I look forward to establishing our little community here at the center, where we can give our children the nurturing and activities that will assist them with their growth and development.
Dina Flores, Director