Thursday marked the last day of class at Manatee County’s Duette Elementary School - literally. It’s the end of an era as the one-room school house in the farming community about 40 miles outside of Bradenton closes for the last time. Duette is the last one-room school house in Florida and had been one of only 27 left operating in the U.S.
The Kindergarten through Fifth grade students at Duette have been mixing and mingling with little regard for who belongs in what grade. That’s because they all attend class together in one room with their teacher and principal Donna King, known as ‘Miss Donna.’
She’s been with the school for the last 23 years and has also been the driving force that’s kept the school open. The one-room-schoolhouse has faced threats of closure going back at least 35 years.
“I show to people who come a yellowed newspaper article from the 70s that says there was a threat of the school closing,” said King. “For many years the community would rise up when there was talk of closing the school and the school district would decide to keep the school open because of community pressure.”
That changed in 2009 when the Manatee County School Board voted to close the school due to low enrollment and financial hardships caused by the great recession. King officially retired that year, but still fought to keep the school going.
“I saw this coming and I went to the community and made a plea and some people came together and we formed a foundation called the Duette Education Foundation,” said Kind. “And that corporation then contracted with the Manatee School District to operate the school and has operated it up to this time.”
Covering operating costs hasn’t been easy for the 501c3 non-profit foundation. Parents who chose to send their kids to Duette were responsible for transportation and providing lunches from home. Money the foundation raised pays for a custodian and a teaching assistant’s salary, but Donna King herself has not collected a salary since 2012.
“I was taking a little bit of money. I call it gas money to help out a little bit,” said King. “And certainly I was born to teach and so I kept this open and I made a commitment to the parents of the children and now I’m sorry I won’t be able to carry that on.”
Parents like Rosa Benitez say they’re sad to see the school close. The decision to send her kids here wasn’t just about avoiding the need for long bus rides into town. With just 11 students in the school, her three kids Lina, David and Hector, have gotten more individual attention than they would at a more conventional school.
“It’s just so different here,” said Benitez. “It’s more like a private school. And right now I’ve been asking. They’re like 25 kids for one teacher at the schools.”
Her kids say they like the support of being in class with their siblings. And they’re no exception. All but one Duette student this year attended class with a brother or sister. Benitez said she laments knowing next year, her relationship with her kids’ teachers just won’t be the same.
“I even have her cell phone number,” said Benitez. “I message her, call her, anything. ‘I’m going to be late.’ She’s like, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll take care of them.’ She’s wonderful and my kids love her.”
King says teaching in this environment has suited her well. She likens her personal philosophy of education to the Montessori approach emphasizing independence and working with a child’s natural psychological, cognitive and social development. Students take the required standardized tests, but King isn’t too keen on emphasizing grade levels.
“Today I do refer to children as grade levels because they know and because people who come into the classroom want to know,” said King. “But I don’t teach first grade. I don’t teach third grade. What does it matter what grade you’re in? We’re just here to learn and work.”
The school itself serves as a history lesson. It first opened in 1930 as what was then referred to as a strawberry school. “A strawberry school is unique to Florida,” said King. “The schools were closed from December to June because children were needed in the fields to pick strawberries. So the strawberry season dictated the school calendar.”
The school didn’t adopt a more traditional academic schedule until 1952.
Earlier this year, members of the Duette Community Association feared the school’s closure could mean losing a piece of history. The historic schoolhouse and its 15-acre campus dotted with Spanish moss draped Live Oak trees now serves as a kind of community center for the unincorporated town. Manatee County School Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene says not to worry. The school district plans to retain and preserve the property.
“It’s a beautiful school and it does remind you of that one room school house that was so famously brought to life on shows like Little House on the Prairie and in books that I’ve read related to our early days of public education,” said Greene.
The district plans to bring students here on field trips for a hands- on experience exploring Florida history. “We’re looking at providing a social studies curriculum tied to our state standards on early public education for our second graders,” said Greene. “We would use the Duette School as a culminating activity that would show what was life like in public education during the 1800s.”
The Manatee County School District has not yet made an official announcement about the future of the Duette School site.