by Art Levy
Updated 5 yearss ago
Donna King reached into a filing cabinet and pulled out a yellowed newspaper from 1972. She pointed to an article bemoaning the likelihood that Duette Elementary School — Florida’s last operating one-teacher schoolhouse — was almost certainly about to close. She reached back into the drawer for another clipping and read the headline aloud: “Florida’s Last One- Teacher School — Can It Survive?"
“That one’s from 1979,” she says.“So you see. This has been going on a long time.”
Duette, a tiny public school amid the vast agricultural fields of northeast Manatee County, has 11 students spanning kindergarten through fifth grade. They still arrive each morning, study math and reading and tend to the vegetable garden outside. King, their teacher, dotes over each one, giving them individual attention targeted to each child’s grade level.
“All the people over the many years who said this school was about to close, they’ve always been wrong,” King says.
But maybe not this time.
Created in 1930 after being merged with two other rural schools, Duette Elementary was run by the Manatee County School District until 2010, when it began Operating under a contract between the Duette Education Foundation, which helps pay the expenses, and the school district, which still owns the 86-year-old, 4,800-sq.-ft. schoolhouse. This summer, however, the contract ends and King, Duette’s teacher since 1993, retires.
“If I could, I would go on,” King says. “But I’m 68 years old. I can’t stay here and do half a job. That’s not me. I’m either going to teach you 100% or I’m not going to teach.I can’t stay on just to keep the school open.”
So, she says, June 30 “is the end of the Duette Education Foundation and the end of me.”
It’s still not certain that Duette will close. King says the district could take back the school and hire her replacement. But, because of the economic inefficiencies of operating a public school with so few students, that’s not likely to happen, says Bob Gause, a member of the Manatee County School Board.
Diana Greene, superintendent of Manatee schools, expects that the future of the school will be discussed at an upcoming school board workshop. She envisions a community facility, used only occasionally by the district.
“Ms. King did an amazing job of keeping the one room schoolhouse concept alive and successful for many years,” Greene says. "She should be very proud of her accomplishment. But it is time to move forward.”
King had been hoping that the Duette community would rise up and do something to save the school, but most of the town’s families, she says, bus their children to schools in Bradenton or Parrish, so the residents aren’t as invested in Duette Elementary as they were in the past. King hears that if the school closes, it might become a community center or a museum.
This year’s class includes one kindergartner, one first-grader, four second-graders, one third-grader and four fifth-graders. The fifth-graders will be off to middle school next year, but they’re not happy with what they hear about Duette’s future.
“I felt lucky to be here since the first day,” says 11-year-old Alyssa Botello, a fifth-grader who, with her sister Marisa, enrolled in Duette four years ago. “Everybody treats you like you are special and important. At my other school, it was not like that. I think it’s terrible that this is the last year because other kids won’t get to come here and experience what we have.”
At the start of the current school year, King admits that she was a little “teary-eyed,” knowing that this is likely Duette Elementary’s final year. She’s feeling less emotional now but will have to see how she feels this summer.
“I love this place, and I love these children,” she says. “This school has been my life’s work.”
Duette Elementary School
» Principal/teacher: Donna King, 68, replaced the school’s longtime leader, Ada “Miss Ada” Bilbrey, in 1993.
» Rarity: According to the One-Room Schoolhouse Center, Duette is among 27 one-teacher schools still operating in the United States. In 1920, there were more than 190,000.