“If I had 65 magic seeds, I would grow . . ."
Here was a little game to start another day at Duette Elementary School. The school made of white wood with red window trim sits out here in rural northeast Manatee County by the phosphate mines and the strawberry fields. It's the last of its kind in the state.
Watermelons, one child said.
Tomatoes, said a second.
Dollar trees, said a third.
It's not quite a one-room schoolhouse, but it's close enough: This year, enrollment is 11 students. They are in different grades, kindergarten to fifth, but they all learn under the same roof and are taught by the same teacher.
Donna King, 61, who has white hair and red lipstick and the other day wore a necklace of bright, blinking Christmas lights, is in her 18th year here. The children call her Miss Donna.
"If I had 65 magic seeds," 8-year-old Dawson Groover finally said, "I would grow 65 Miss Donnas."
King looked at the small, blond boy looking up at her, and then over at the reporter visiting the school.
"That," she said, "is why I say I'd work for free."
She might have to.
• • •
There's no post office in Duette, just a country store, a Baptist church and the school. The local volunteer fire district is 136 square miles, and not even 1,000 people live within its borders. This time of year, the barely cool breeze blows across the many rows of open, fertile ground.
The school, which was featured in the St. Petersburg Times in June, is so important to this community in part because it's the closest thing to a community center it has. And also because of the people who have learned here, in many cases the moms and dads and granddads and aunts of the students who are here now.
In June, though, the Manatee County school board voted to close the school at the end of the academic year.
The problem is that Duette doesn't pay for itself, and that becomes even more of an issue in a time of such budget cuts. The district gets a set amount of money from the state to educate each child. The per-student allotment for 11 students at Duette is not even a third of what is needed to run the school.
The school board in August gave Duette a brief reprieve: It could stay open until Dec. 18.
But after that?
The district suggested Duette might be able to continue as a "contract school." That means the district still would pitch in its per-student share from the state but would no longer cover the overruns. The difference, more than $100,000 a year, needed to be made up some other way.
So in August, King, some parents and some members of the community, about a dozen strong, set up the Duette Education Foundation.
The Duette Education Foundation finalized its portion of the contract with the district one evening last week. The school board is scheduled to look it over a week from Monday.
On Dec. 18, King said the other day at the school, here's what will happen:
She'll retire from the Manatee schools.
She'll start working for the foundation.
The foundation's goal is twofold.
It wants to increase enrollment. Duette has no attendance zone. No children are made to go there because they live nearby. Parents have to want their children to go there. Per-student money would be enough to make Duette self-sufficient if it had between 20 and 25 children. The foundation is hoping to start a pre-K and before- and after-school care.
Getting more parents to drop off more children at the school is, in a way, a form of fundraising.
So is this: "We're hoping to, we will, get some cash donations for operating funds," King said.
The foundation is counting on donations from local companies. King won't name names, not quite yet, and neither will Jerry Groover, a Myakka City firefighter, father to Dawson and now president of the foundation. The biggest, most successful businesses in the area are nurseries, farms and mines. Some of the companies that have pledged to help have given verbal commitments, Groover said last week, that are "more than just words."
"This is very unique," said Margi Nanney, the Manatee schools spokeswoman, "because it is a very unique situation."
It will work, King says, and so do the parents, and so do the community members who care about this school, because it must work.
• • •
It has been here since 1930. It's only had electricity since 1947. Until 1952, Duette was a "strawberry school," so the academic year ran from May to December because after that, families needed their children to help pick the crop.
Today, Duette isn't for everybody, but for the right kids, and the right parents, this is the best kind of education: more personal and hands-on, less structured and standardized.
In the fridge in the kitchen where the children sit and share breakfast and lunch are pickles they make using cucumbers they grow. The garden they tend to outside also now has zipper peas and small but handsome eggplants. They collect in a jar snakeskins found on the grounds around the school. The bumper sticker pinned to the wall above King's desktop reads like a declaration: Childhood Is A Journey . . . Not A Race.
"They get a different education here," said Groover, the president of the foundation.
"They get all the basic stuff they'd get in town," he said, "but they also get so much more here, of what I consider true learning rather than just book smarts."
At Duette, the children take the FCAT but they don't take tests, and they don't get grades. King's explanation: "I know what they know."
She gauges their progress not just on right or wrong, but also on their improvement. Where have they been? Where are they going?
She sat off to the side of the school's main room last week while her children used their laptops to create calendars for December.
"I am not concerned," she said.
But why? That's a lot of money that needs to be raised.
"I am not worried," she said.
But why? This is a small place that needs to raise it.
"When you ask me why . . ."
She got up and walked over to a shelf and pulled down a plastic bin and pulled off the cover. Out came a long scroll of yellowed newspaper stories sealed in plastic laminate. The stories about Duette were from Tampa, Lakeland, Bradenton. She spread it out over a long table surrounded by mite-sized chairs with tennis balls stuck on the bottoms of their legs so they don't scrape the floors.
A headline: Florida's last one-teacher school hangs on amid grand old oaks 40 miles outside of Bradenton.
She pointed at the date.
"Dec. 23, 1975!" she said.
Another story. Tough times. Might close.
"March 19, 1978!"
And another. "Can Love Save This School?"
"May 20, 2006!"
The questions, always the questions, she said, of if it's going to stay open, and how it's going to stay open . . . "This," King said, "is the history of the school!"
She looked around her. She motioned to the children, the computers, the workbooks and sweatshirts and nap mats in the cubbies up against the wall. All here.
"I'll come and work for nothing," she said. "Just turn the electric on."
• • •
Middle of the afternoon now. Time to go outside to check on the garden and go for a walk.
King reached down and helped a girl in kindergarten knot the laces of her shiny sneakers that said I BELIEVE IN MAGIC. Then she stood up.
"Everybody do Apple S and close your computer," she told the children.
Michael Kruse can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8751.