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The last teacher standing

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Just a few miles south of Florida’s fourth most populous county is a remnant of a different time.

 

By Mitch Traphagen

 

DUETTE — Just a few miles south of Florida’s fourth most populous county is a remnant of a different time. Despite more than three million people living in the counties adjacent to Duette Elementary School, the setting is pastoral and quiet—and a throwback to a different and more simple time. Duette Elementary School is Florida’s last one-room schoolhouse. 

 

Along State Road 62, farmland and scattered homes dot the handful of miles between the school and a general store. The area, like the school itself, is antithetical to the exploding population and development along the coast, just miles to the east. With an enrollment of 13 students from kindergarten to fourth grade, Florida’s class size amendment means little there. Crowding isn’t an issue. Lack of students, however, has raised concern about the school’s survival, and for the past several years, the school’s sole teacher and citizens from the Duette area have risen to the challenge, finding ways to keep the school open. Yet the challenge is relentless.

 

Located in Manatee County, Duette Elementary School is just 22 miles from Sun City Center. The school was built in 1930 using volunteer labor. It was known as a “strawberry school”, with classes held from April to December to allow the children to work during the months of the strawberry harvest. At one time up to 80 children, from kindergarten to the eighth grade, attended the school.

 

One-room schoolhouses are a fixture of America’s heritage. In the early decades of the 20th century, thousands of one-room schools provided the means for the education of mostly rural children from coast to coast. The children came by foot, on horseback, or in a buggy to the school, which frequently also served as a home for the sole teacher. President Herbert Hoover and astronaut Alan Shepard attended one-room schools. For millions of later-generation Americans, the schools were popularized by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series of books and the television program Little House on the Prairie.

 

With the advent of the school bus and the urban migration that took place in the years after World War II, one-room schools quickly faded from the American landscape. Although many were destroyed to reclaim farmland, some were converted to rural community centers and some have been preserved as museums. But a few remain standing, abandoned along gravel roads in America’s heartland with bleached white bones of wood, replete with echoes of times long past. 

 

Duette Elementary School has managed to avoid the fate of so many other rural schools. According to teacher and principal Donna King, the school currently has six children in kindergarten, one in first grade, three in second grade, two in third grade, and one student in fourth grade. 

 

In late 2009, the Manatee County School Board determined that the school was no longer financially feasible due to low enrollment. King, along with citizens in the Duette area, formed the nonprofit Duette Education Foundation to take over the operation of the school. The Manatee County School Board contracted with the foundation, much like a charter school, thus keeping the school open. That year, King retired from her long career with Manatee County Schools and went to work for the foundation as the school’s sole teacher and principal. The foundation estimated that at least 20 to 25 students are needed to keep the school open.

 

The school’s 13 students represent an increase over the 11 students enrolled at the school in 2009. The relatively large kindergarten class of six students suggests a brighter future may be on the horizon, but money is an issue that cannot always wait for the future. Last year, the school lost nearly a quarter of the enrollment when three fifth graders graduated to middle school. King, who has been the school’s teacher since 1993, took a fifty percent cut in order to help keep the school open, and then she also allowed her salary to be deferred. She has long been the school’s most dedicated and enthusiastic advocate, vowing to find ways to keep the school open as long as there were children to attend it.

 

Although the building has five rooms, all thirteen students are taught in one classroom. Inside, alongside the computers students use for class work, are traditional tools and benefits inherent to the multi-grade platform, allowing younger children to benefit from the presence and assistance of older children, and each of the 13 students benefiting from the one-on-one attention of Donna King. Outside, tradition is plainly visible in the playground of monkey bars, swings and teeter-totters in the shade of enormous trees on the 10-acre lot. Along one side of the school is a tennis court; on the other are cement picnic tables, the school’s cafeteria during good weather. 

 

With the school year coming to a close, the future of Florida’s last remaining one-teacher, one-room schoolhouse remains uncertain. The allotment of funds per student from Manatee County have not covered the expenses of the school, compelling King and foundation members to seek donations from area businesses and members of the community. The school is currently seeking $100,000 in endowed operating capital, among other donations for everything from central heat and air conditioning to building insulation and a custom entry doormat, like that found at public schools nearly everywhere.

 

The Florida landscape has changed dramatically over the decades, from one in which agriculture as a leading industry gave way to tourism and development as the business of the state. Through it all, Duette Elementary School has remained, a vestige of the past, perhaps, but also proof that despite all that is new and different, the traditions and ways of old still have merit and value. For 81 years, the school has withstood the test of time and change. It remains to be seen if this year will be the last.

 

For more information, visit the Duette Elementary School website at www.duetteschool.org.

 

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