Duette school to be back next year

jajones1@bradenton.comMay 15, 2011 

DUETTE -- Seemingly against all odds, Florida’s last remaining one-teacher school has opened registration for the next school year, with less than a month remaining in the current school year.

Retired teacher Donna King, who hasn’t drawn a salary in a year and a half, said she will be back next year in a quest to keep the historic school alive.

“We have had a great year,” said King, 63, who drives 26 miles to work daily from Bradenton, as she has done every year since 1993.

In 2009, Manatee School District officials decided that they could no longer afford to operate the school, which has served the Duette community since 1930.

Duette Elementary School became a charter school, operated by the Duette Education Foundation.

The foundation has struggled with fundraising, however, and the majority of Duette children attend other schools in Manatee County with more resources,

“My vision is to hire a teacher,” King said of a potential successor.

But even then she would not be ready to walk away from the school where she has devoted so many years. She would like to go part-time and assist with fundraising and administration.

The school is sometimes referred to as Florida’s last one-room school house, but it is more accurate to call it a one-teacher school.

Duette Elementary was built as a five-room school in 1930 by volunteer labor, combining three smaller rural schools -- Albritton, Bunker Hill and Duette, according to a plaque erected on the site by the Manatee County Historical Commission.

“For many years, it was a ‘strawberry school’ with classes held from April to December. The school once went to eight grades and had as many as 80 pupils. Ada Bilbrey served as teacher and principal here for over 30 years,” the plaque says.

The historic significance of the building with its tongue-and-groove walls and ceilings, and polished wood floors, is not lost on King.

“This building is in good shape. There are people who realize the value of this for Manatee County,” she said.

It pains her that Duette has an enrollment of only 13, ranging from kindergarten through fourth grade.

“I can’t leave these kids,” she said.

Maybe one day Duette will have a larger, more modern school, and the 1930-school can be preserved as a museum, King said.

Bradenton resident Tricia Rehfeldt serves as teacher assistant at Duette.

The rural atmosphere, the small class size, and the dynamics of having different classes in one school setting appeals to Rehfeldt.

“They all learn the same way, even though they are different ages,” she said.

PTA President Valerie Mercer is among those who are sold on Duette Elementary.

Even though community support hasn’t exactly translated into dollars in the bank, she remains hopeful.

“The staff is very dedicated. They put in long hours,” Mercer said.

Her second-grade daughter, Skye, attends Duette.

Skye has come out of her shell attending school with children of various ages.

“She used to stay in the background and now she played the lead role in the ‘Nutcracker Suite,’ ” Mercer said.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.

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