Donna King, principal and teacher at Duette Elementary School since 1993, kept a close rein on her emotions — and her students — Thursday, the final day of class at Florida’s last one-room school.
That is until Felicia Tappan, past president of the Duette PTA, walked in and surprised King with a bouquet of roses.
King’s goal had been to stay close to her children until the final moment of Duette Elementary’s life as an active school. Thursday, she coached them on the finer points of tossing a raw egg, gave the starting command for a sack race and sent them inside for lunch when storm clouds approached.
But when Tappan walked up behind her with the roses, King lost her composure.
“My No.1 parent,” King said, embracing Tappan, as both women shed tears.
All three of Tappan’s children attended school at Duette Elementary.
“I dropped everything to come here today with Donna,” Tappan said. “She has been more than a teacher and principal. It’s a dear friend relationship.”
Duette Elementary supporters hope that even though the school is closing, it will continue as a history field trip destination.
Superintendent Diana Greene and Duette resident Betty Glassburn presented several scenarios for the future of the school to the school board in May.
"We could re-create the one-room schoolhouse effect and use it as a field-trip location for all of our second-graders," Greene told the school board.
Glassburn is leading the effort to place the school, which traces its start to 1930 when it opened as a “strawberry school,” on the National Register of Historic Places.
‘Oh, my word. A school is a place to learn. That is not going to cease.’
“I am delighted with what Dr. Greene wants to do with the school,” King said Thursday. “Oh, my word. A school is a place to learn. That is not going to cease. I saw the look on Dr. Greene’s face when she visited Duette Elementary, and saw that it is clean, it’s beautiful, and it entices children to learn.”
If ever there was a time that the future of Duette Elementary seemed secure, King probably doesn’t remember it.
In 1983, King told then-Superintendent Dan Nolan she wanted to move to Duette Elementary when its principal Ada Bilbrey retired.
Nolan tried to dissuade King from the move, saying that when Bilbrey retired, the school would probably be closed.
But King persisted, and helped wrangle community support to keep the school running, even as she survived a bout with cancer, then stopped taking a salary in 2012.
“That was my contribution to keeping the school open,” King said.
“It was a real battle in this community to keep the school open. You were fighting against the perception that services that the larger schools could provide were better, and the feeling that the larger schools were better,” Tappan said.
The small, intimate nature of Duette Elementary is exactly what attracted Allison Vetzel, who had previously home-schooled her children.
“It’s heartbreaking that the school is closing. It has become a second family, a second home,” Vetzel said.
With Duette closing, Vetzel plans to resume home-schooling her children.
Lina Juarez, 10, attended Duette Elementary from kindergarten though fifth grade.
“I like Duette Elementary because I get to be with my brothers and know everyone well,” Lina said. “Other people cannot experience how she (King) is and how how she teaches because the school is closing.”
Duette Elementary opened in 1930 as a "strawberry school," which could let students out of class to help their families with the harvest.