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Duette Elementary might soon be looking for a new teacher

DUETTE -- Seeing hogs, deer and turkeys cross the road as she drives to work isn’t uncommon for Donna King.

King wears two hats as principal and teacher at Duette Elementary School, the state’s last remaining one-teacher school house.

Every weekday, King leaves her Bradenton home and travels to Parrish, in northeast Manatee County. The 35-mile trek is dotted with lots of greenery and orange groves, reminders of a more nostalgic Florida.

The Duette school has offered down-home, personal education to students for 81 years. But that soon might change. King, who has taught there for 19 years, says she plans to quit her unpaid position at the end of this school year.

“Nobody believes I will quit,” King said with a laugh. “I want to get a teacher to do the teaching.”

A beautiful carpet of green grass surrounds the 4,836-square-foot school building. It’s equipped with a full kitchen, several classrooms, a stage with theater seating, a vegetable garden, playground, tennis and basketball courts.

“A lot of people say it’s like home-schooling here,” King said.

In 1930, the Duette School was built with volunteer labor after three rural schools were consolidated, according to a historic plaque on school grounds.

Ten students now are enrolled in the school in kindergarten through sixth grade. King teaches them the core subjects of math, science and English. She organizes different arts and crafts so that all grade levels can understand.

“Donna has absolutely been the heart and soul of Duette School,” Manatee County School Superintendent Tim McGonegal said.

The school district owns the building and the Duette Education Foundation is charged with raising funds to keep the school going.

Fundraisers keep the school operating. The biggest fundraiser, the annual fall festival, was held Nov. 12 and about $4,000 was made.

“I hope I live a life that is an example for them,” King said wistfully, looking at the children eating lunch last week.

Students bring their own lunch to school. That’s just one of the cost-saving measures she instituted when the Manatee County School District placed Duette on contract about three years ago. The contract was established so the school could stay open.

McGonegal said the school district will help find a suitable replacement for King.

If a replacement isn’t found, McGonegal finds it hard to believe that the school would close.

“I know the school has been around for generations. I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t continue that tradition,” he said.

This week, every child from 6 to 11 years old made a turkey out of pine cones.

“They’ll all help each other,” King said, watching over the students cutting construction paper. “Why do I have the passion to do this? Look at how they are helping each other. That’s more of a global outlook.”

Not all of King’s students reside near Duette. Three students take the same route to Duette that she drives every day from Bradenton. One student comes from Hillsborough County, she said.

Her biggest fear is that the school will be closed if another teacher is not located.

“It will be heartbreaking if the school closes,” she said.

Parents joined their children at the school Friday to eat a Thanksgiving dinner prepared by the students. The menu included green beans the students snapped themselves.

King teaches non-curriculum items that stick with students like sharing, listening, helping and talking to each other with respect. It’s her easy-going, stern personality and effervescence that seems to win over students.

Sixth-grader Sabrina Leplew, 11, explained the difference between her current traditional school and Duette. She moved to a middle school after attending Duette last school year.

“It’s more professional ... strict,” Sabrina said of Nolan Middle School. At Duette, “It’s just work your best.”

King responded, “That’s all I want from them -- their best.”