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As Florida's last one-teacher school, Duette Elementary, faces closure, a community must consider its values

DUETTE

Out here toward the center of the state, in the far northeast corner of Manatee County, there sits a school.

Duette Elementary is a small, white wood building with a front porch and tall windows with red trim. It's Florida's last one-teacher schoolhouse.

Thursday was the last day of school.

Maybe forever.

Duette is tiny and isolated, fence-post, wide-sky rural. The volunteer fire district, 136 square miles, has fewer than 1,000 people. There's no post office. There's the Duette Country Store, there's the Dry Prairie Baptist Church, and there's the school.

It's been here for nearly 80 years, set on 10 acres surrounded by citrus groves, strawberry fields and phosphate mines.

The school isn't just the heart of the community.

It pretty much is the community.

Talk to the folks who've lived out this way for generations — Keens, Carltons, Groovers — and you hear lots of things like this, from Silas Keen, 67, retired from the phosphate mines:

"I went to the school, and my daddy went to the school . . ."

In the past several years, said Manatee superintendent Tim McGonegal, the cost to run Duette has far exceeded the per-pupil allotment — more than $100,000 more. This was tolerable when money was flush. Not anymore.

The Manatee school board on Monday evening will vote on McGonegal's recommendation about what to do with Duette. That is: Give Duette what the state gives the county to run it — next year, an estimated $47,179 — and then it's up to Duette, the school and the community, to raise the rest.

Or close.

What you have, then, is the school district essentially posing a question to Duette:

You say you like your school.

How much?

• • •

For the first 10 years, the school had no place to eat inside, so the students ate under the oak trees — egg sandwiches or peanut butter with homemade strawberry jam on light "wasp-nest" bread. Farmers sometimes brought by some of their peas or greens. The kids went to the bathroom in outhouses. They drank from cupped hands water drawn from a pitcher-pump. There was no electricity until 1947. Until 1952, it was a "strawberry school," which meant the academic year ran from May to December so kids could help during the picking season.

These days, though, the learning going on inside Duette Elementary is not antique. It is, in some ways, just the opposite.

You have teacher Donna King. The kids call her Miss Donna. You have a teacher's aide. And you have 10 kids: Hazael Gomez and Skye McLeod, 6; James DuBois, Alaina Keen and Daniel Azua, 7; Dawson Groover and Abby Tran, 8; Nicole DuBois, 10; and Alex Lares and Dale DuBois, 11. They're the sons and daughters of farmers, firefighters, truck drivers, migrant workers. They range from kindergarten to the fourth grade. The school goes to the fifth.

You notice the old seats bolted to the hardwood floors in the auditorium. That feels old. You also notice the computers. That feels new.

What you notice the most, though, is what you don't see. Rows of desks. Assigned seats. Textbooks. Which is to say that what might be lost here isn't merely a slice of Americana, or some nostalgic, yellow-edged notion of what once was. It's a school, active, even avant-garde.

A lot of schools were like this one in the early part of the 20th century. As the country's population grew and moved off the farms and into the cities — less agriculture, more industry — these places were left behind.

At Duette, though, Miss Donna has turned a relic into an opportunity. The system of multi-age education dovetails with her own personal beliefs.

A sticker on one of the bulletin boards says: Childhood Should Be A Journey . . . Not A Race.

"Everyone shouldn't have to progress at the same time," she said last week. "Every child doesn't read on the same day.

"We're still preparing kids for the industrial age," she added, "when it's the information age."

Miss Donna, 61, has a master's degree in elementary education from the University of South Florida. She's taught for three-and-a-half decades in Manatee, everything from kindergarten to high school math. She came to Duette in 1993 and was a finalist for county teacher of the year three years later.

Her multi-age approach is more flexible and less competitive. Miss Donna can spend more time with each child, given the small number of students, but kids are expected to teach other kids, too, and do. Students are allowed to move at their own pace.

They don't take tests. Miss Donna administers the FCAT because she has to. Two of her students took the FCAT this year, Dale DuBois and his sister Nicole, and they both passed. The school doesn't get an overall FCAT grade because two is not a big enough statistical sample.

"But do I give tests and grade those tests and average them? No," Miss Donna said.

She gives grades based not only on the work they've done but the progress she has seen.

"I know my kids," she said. "I know what they know."

One day last week, during gym class, which was a group tennis lesson on the court outside, a black racer snake showed up and coiled its body around the chain link fence. The kids scampered over to take a look.

The snake flicked its tongue in and out. Gym class turned into a science lesson.

"See his tongue?" Miss Donna told the kids. "He can't see that well. He's putting his tongue out to feel your heat."

• • •

Not all the kids who live near Duette go to Duette. Not even a majority of them do.

More than a decade ago the district started allowing the kids in the area to go to other schools, like Myakka City Elementary, or Gene Witt in Bradenton. Three years ago, the district did away with Duette's attendance zone altogether, which meant parents had to "choice" their kids into Duette. There's no bus transportation, and there's no before- or after-school care. Some parents are concerned about the transition after fifth grade from such a small environment to a much larger middle school.

Those students who do come here, though, love it.

They eat breakfast together. They plant sunflowers, tomatoes, broccoli and squash in the garden on the playground, and sometimes their produce is part of their lunch. They come in from outside flush-faced and sweaty-haired. They walk around inside in their socks. They write in their diaries, they read on their own and they're read to in groups, and math lessons sometimes involve graphs made with candy bunnies they eat after finishing their work. They put on plays.

They hug each other.

They sing a lot.

Last week, during diary writing time, Dawson Groover wrote: "I WiSH THAT SCHOOl WOD NeVRe eND."

The cynic says of course. No tests? Spend a few days here, though, and it's tough to stay a cynic.

Jerry Groover, Dawson's dad, likes the one-on-one attention.

And Angela DuBois, the mother of nearly a third of the Duette student body, said: "We've just fallen in love with the school, and Miss Donna. I have seen a tremendous difference in all my children.

"Especially Dale."

• • •

Dale has a round face, blue eyes and a buzz cut, and he wants to tell you stories, about his BB gun, and his camera, and the snake he caught that was as long as he is tall.

When he speaks, it's clear he has an active, vibrant mind.

When it comes to the written word, though, he struggles.

This was his third year at Duette, but at his last school, Myakka City, he languished. He often came home from school crying.

Last week, during a handwriting exercise, he wrote his name in cursive.

"There's something about your l," Miss Donna said. "Where is your l?"

The l in Dale was stubby and half-formed.

"Okay," Dale said. "I'll try it again."

"Dale," Miss Donna said, "I think you've come a long way this year, don't you?"

"Yeah," Dale said.

One day last week he wore a blue T-shirt that said:

THINGS THAT ROCK

DRUMS

GUITAR

ME!

His mother was outside after dropping him off. "When he came here," she said, "he had no confidence.

"Miss Donna has totally changed that around."

For Angela DuBois, what Duette has given her and her family, she said, is priceless.

Her son is happy.

• • •

The problem with priceless is that it isn't free.

Said McGonegal, the superintendent: "The numbers don't add up."

He talked on the phone last week about "economies of scale," and what's efficient and what's not, and a 10-student school, he said, is not.

All this, say many of the people who live out here, is the latest instance of the county not caring about Duette. Too little to matter, they say.

"They've been looking for a way to close the school," said Jim Leonard, the Duette volunteer fire chief, who had a son and a daughter go to the school.

Not true, said the superintendent. The Manatee schools, he said, have to cut $25 million in the next three years, including $14 million next year. Hard cuts.

"I don't want to close Duette," the superintendent said last week. "But I don't want $118,000 more to be spent on Duette than what's earned."

New year, Miss Donna says, same story. She keeps news clippings from years past when this has come up.

One begins: "The demise of the one-teacher school in Florida is imminent. Only one exists — Duette Elementary in Manatee County — and it is hanging on by scarcely more than a wistful sigh."

That ran on Nov. 15, 1970.

In the past, the school has had its regular festivals, fish fries and fundraisers, and they often bring in $2,000 here, $3,000 there.

"The community's always backed the school," said Pat Carlton, 57, who went to Duette and is seventh-generation in the area. "We've auctioned off donated fishing trips, TVs, dinners, car washes, oil changes, pies . . . "

But $100,000 is a lot of hot mullet and strawberry pie.

Miss Donna met last Wednesday with "a business with an interest and a checkbook." She said it went well and she couldn't say anything more. Mosaic, the phosphate company with a huge presence in the community, hasn't been approached, according to a spokesman, but would be willing to help how it can. Miss Donna has a meeting this week with the superintendent.

Last week, though, she peppered her conversations with talk about plans for next year.

"I'm planning another Cracker Day for next year . . . "

"After the floors are done next year . . . "

And outside the school, on the sign in front, the black letters hung hopeful:

NEW STUDENTS REGISTER NOW.

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

As Florida's last one-teacher school, Duette Elementary, faces closure, a community must consider its values 06/05/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 6, 2009 3:57pm]

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