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The last one-room schoolhouse

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[Times photos: Daniel Wallace]
At Duette Elementary, most of the intense instruction, from math to writing to special projects, occurs in the mornings, as shown here in the main classroom. At left is teacher aide Judy Coker.

By SUSAN ASCHOFF

© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 5, 2001


The only single-teacher school in Florida is Duette Elementary in Manatee County. How to educate two dozen kids ages 5 to 11? Ask their teacher: "I'm not teaching a grade, I'm not teaching FCAT. I'm teaching children.''

DUETTE -- Dawn's red fingers tug at the darkness as Donna King turns off State Road 62 onto a gravel drive leading to a solitary frame building. It rests in an expanse of clipped grass surrounded by miles of strawberry fields and citrus groves, the leaves still slick with dew. The only sound is the whoosh of a truck passing on the highway.

King shoots out of the car, her arms filled with folders and a tote bag, and bounds up the steps to the heavy double doors. She dumps her armful on a desk inside and trots through the rooms, her heels tapping on the pine floorboards.

She hits a power button to awaken a row of personal computers. She pauses at a mesh cage to inspect two monarch butterflies inside. She taps to the other side of the room, where she considers a row of baby food jars labeled with masking tape and holding cuttings of coleus. The magenta and lime leaves glow in the morning sunlight sneaking through a bank of tall windows.

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Kitchen manager and custodian Charlotte Wilson, right, jokes with second-grader Evelyn Santos at the counter.
In minutes, the children will arrive. The school bus will pull around to the rear of the building and disgorge sleepy-eyed kindergarteners and big sisters with neatly braided hair. Boys with cowlicks that refused to be plastered in place will jump onto the pavement, their backpacks throwing off their balance.

For 71 years the high-ceilinged, age-patinaed rooms have welcomed the cacophony. King, the teacher, will guide the 5-year-old struggling to pencil the letters in his first name, the facile fifth-grader solving for Y.

This is the little house on the prairie. With connections to the Internet. This is Duette Elementary, the last "one-room schoolhouse" in Florida.

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While waiting for the others to finish in the restrooms, which are in a separate building behind the school, second-graders Julia Trevino, left, and Evelyn Santos try some twirling. Santos’ arm is in a cast following corrective surgery.

Global studies

Some of the students arrive by car, brought by parents from homes and farms strung along Manatee County's rural roads. Most ride the bus. They line up on the walk outside, girls on one side, boys on the other.

Aide Judy Coker stands atop the stairs, imposing order.

"Let's do the stomp to get the dirt off our feet," she says.

Pairs of athletic shoes with grippy soles pound loose the topsoil and file inside.

Duette Elementary is not strictly a one-room schoolhouse. It has five rooms. But it is the only one-teacher school still operating in Florida. There is a historic plaque on a post outside.

Two dozen students ages 5 to 11 in grades K through 5 study, eat, play and squabble together.

The school is on 10 acres halfway between Parrish and Wauchula. Built in 1930, it combined three small rural schools in Albritton, Bunker Hill and Duette and moved the plumbing indoors.

Duette was a "strawberry school." Children helped pick produce with their families, so the school was built by the fields and its academic year timed to the growing season, beginning in April and ending in December.

Today few of the students pick crops, but many families still remember when. Hannah Shuman, a fifth-grader, and her sister, second-grader Sarah, are two of Duette's legacies: Their older brother and sister, father and grandfather attended Duette school. This year there are eight sets of siblings.

For students and parents, Duette -- though costlier to run than a traditional public school -- retains the comfortable feel of family while adopting evolving technology. Some parents find here an alternative to home schooling. Others prefer a small school to several hundred students at a Bradenton elementary 30 miles away. The community contributes time and money.

Duette Elementary, in the middle of nowhere, belongs to a neighborhood.

"It's the setting that a lot of schools are trying to achieve but don't," says Felicia Tappan, mother of 10-year-old Amanda and 8-year-old Audrey. The Tappan home and Tappan Nurseries Tree Farm are 10 miles from the school.

The school has no media center, no chorus or band. "I don't feel they're missing anything," Tappan says.

"I feel they're gaining a great deal."

The anachronism of a one-room schoolhouse is turned into a progressive take on self-directed learning by King, who came to Duette nine years ago after Ada Matheson Bilbrey, the sole teacher for 35 years, retired. King says she has always believed in "multi-age education."

"There's so much that's good for children."

Miss Donna, as the children call her, is unflustered by having to prepare a half-dozen lesson plans. She can sort out the questions from five children who surround her after circle time and dispatch them to their grade-level projects. She does not mind that her job includes moving furniture so kitchen manager-custodian Charlotte "Charly" Wilson can sweep.

Being together teaches that "We're a part of the global world. We are not better than anyone else," says King. "What do you do when you finish your work? You help others. Or you further yourself.

"I can mold them here."

After stuffing backpacks in cubbies, the children file past the counter in Wilson's kitchen, collecting containers of cereal and breakfast pockets stuffed with egg and cheese. At the cooler, 7-year-old Christopher Gonzales reaches in for a carton of milk, and again for another, handing it to 5-year-old Vinson Gonzales, small and expectant beside him.

Bugs for everyone

The clock reads 12 minutes after 8. King takes a chair on a rug with a map of the states, and the students sit on the rug, stretching from coast to coast and falling into the oceans.

The subject is bugs.

Franklin Coker, the youngest, is itching to show the shell of a cicada he has brought inside a sour cream container. Rather than add it to the growing collection of dead insects on the ledge near the monarchs, Franklin returns it to his cubbie.

"If I put it with the others it might get messed up," the 5-year-old says.

Another boy has tiny spiders, spikes protruding from their white-and-black spotted backs. "How do you know they're spiders?" asks King.

"They're making webs," volunteers one student.

"They have eight legs," says another.

"That's what we call 'em: crab spiders," says Diego Hernandez, one of three fifth-graders and the only boy.

K
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Vinson Gonzalez, far left, and Franklin Coker, center, receive stickers from teacher Donna King after practicing their letters. Third-grader Kelsey Sly, left, was their helper. Franklin’s “goggles” are a scrap of sticker paper.
ing talks about the butterflies that "emerged" yesterday. The class freed eight outside after spending days learning about how a caterpillar makes a chrysalis and turns into a butterfly. As King speaks, she passes around a stack of lavender papers with the heading "Butterfly Diary" and green papers labeled "Plant Diary."

She asks the students to name the parts of a plant. "Let the third grade on down answer," she says.

After circle time, Diego and a couple of boys from other grades go to a book that is kept with the dead bug collection, flipping through the illustrations for the section on spiders.

"Gas-ter-a-can-tha," says Diego. The crab spiders he found at his house have a very important-sounding name.

He carefully copies it onto a piece of paper.

Three's a class

X's and Y's and parentheses march across the page. One equation is alphabet soup. Solve for Y. Diego is struggling, his dark-haired head bent over the table close to Hannah Shuman's and Amanda Tappan's blond ones.

"We can use the process of elimination," reassures King, the voice of authority in a blue jean dress with a pin that looks like a chalkboard.

She has pulled her three fifth-graders into another room to do algebra while Coker, the aide, remains in the main classroom. "I have a structure," says King. Today the fifth-graders will get some extra time "because the day before they told me I slighted them."

This year Duette has no fourth-graders and a surplus -- 10 -- of second-graders. Coker and King take turns working with each grade or tutoring smaller groups.

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Second-grader Juan Gamez, left, helps kindergartener Ricky Browning with his shoe, lost during a tricycle ride at recess. The fenced tennis court serves as a racetrack.
With only three students deciphering equations, 20 minutes is equal to an hour in a class of 30. Educators agree small class size enhances learning. At Duette, breaking out students in small groups ensures they master requirements for their grade level.

"I use no textbooks," says King. She recalls that when the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test started, she thought, "Oh, I'd better get some of these FCAT workbooks." Then, last year, she thinks she did too many workbooks. This year she is seeking a better balance.

"People always ask me, "How do you teach?' I'm not teaching a grade, I'm not teaching FCAT.

"I'm teaching children."

Coker's group meets in the auxiliary classroom next. They're reading Vampires Don't Drink Lemonade. And they're studying vowels. "E tells the vowel to say its name," she prompts. "Kite. Kit. Cape. Cap." They check each other's homework.

"Check Carley's and give her a happy face," Coker instructs one of the first-graders. Six-year-old Carley Peel beams.

On the bank of computers in the main room, Amanda and Hannah plug a digital camera into a PC to download images of yesterday's butterflies, several of which escaped to flutter about the classroom. "We had to get a net and catch them," says Amanda, understating the gleeful hunt that ensued.

The two girls are making a movie of the project. Some of the younger students are using computer programs to practice phonics and reading. One of the machines freezes. Evelyn Santos, a second-grader, cannot unstick it with the usual key strokes. In her barely audible voice, she instructs the row of classmates to log off so they can reboot.

At a nearby table, Vinson is with the other kindergarteners, laboriously writing his name. The "n"s are backward. An older student shows Vinson an "n."

Eleven-year-old Diego shrugs off the obligations of being the oldest. "There was one school I went to where they had 35 kids in my class.

"If they need to do their math or reading, I can help," he says.

Very hungry learners

The students are back on the rug. King has a canvas bag bulging with potentially interesting stuff.

"The Very Hungry Caterpillar," she tells them, "is maybe my most favorite book by Eric Carle." She begins pulling copies out of her bag. Nine different versions. One in Spanish. One a baby's board book. Another a coloring book. Next comes a sock, which King slips over her hand and forearm.

A caterpillar. Undoubtedly hungry.

The sock nips at a girl's floral dress, a boy's shirt. It moves around the circle of children, who are holding pieces of felt resembling the foods the caterpillar devours in the book. Each child in turn slips the foods over the sock's head: a leaf, a plum, a slice of cheese.

The children's classic is a favorite in kindergartens and first grades. King's sock puppet is performing for third- through fifth-graders, too. "I look for interest," she says. "One year I did it with K and one, and the older students were to work on other things, but they were all looking over here," she says.

Now they all watch the show.

The caterpillar has eaten all the felt food. King opens her fist to reveal a cloth butterfly.

Vinson laughs.

"It doesn't get any better than that!" exclaims King.

Just hungry

Lunch time. And they wait. For everyone to finish washing their hands. For those pulled from line by King because they've left their work on the tables to return from putting it away. Finally they are in Wilson's kitchen.

King sits at the end of one of two long tables, "Miss Charly" mops up spilled juice without a fuss, a few children ask for seconds. Then they're turned loose outside, galloping across the grass to the swings, racing to a shed to haul out wagons and trikes and jump ropes.

The kindergarteners pedal in circles around a tennis court. A pack of boys with a football struggles for an imaginary end zone until Coker intervenes. "No tackling," she orders, pulling apart the sweaty pile.

Time to get back to work, announces Coker. The boys are reminded to wash their hands and faces before returning inside.

"Who cares if we're dirty," hollers Diego. "At least we had free time."

The children are back on the rug, glistening with perspiration, their hair matted to their heads. The older students have copies of On the Banks of Plum Creek. King is reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder book to them a chapter at a time every afternoon.

"Listen to this. I'm going to get a headache. You should have your books ready. Those of you who are learning to read should be looking on with someone else," says King.

She repositions Ricky Browning, placing the twitchy kindergartener at her feet.

"Chapter 29. The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn," she reads. "What does that mean?"

Ricky is unconcerned about the pioneer family's hard times. A piece of lint on the carpet distracts him. He nudges the child next to him.

King banishes Ricky to timeout in a chair set apart from the circle and facing the wall. Five minutes later he is invited to rejoin the circle and sit on King's lap.

Misbehavior is rarely a problem, says King. Older students get timeouts, too -- theirs last longer. She prefers to discuss inappropriate behavior and its consequences with the offender: interrupted learning, hurt feelings, possibly a phone call to parents.

Today's chapter is only two pages long. "Read the next chapter," they plead. So King does. And Paw returns home with enough money to buy cloth for new dresses at the general store.

Pitching in

The day at Duette Elementary is almost over. The teacher's strength should be flagging. But as King reads Wilder, Coker is gamely placing large pieces of white paper, brushes, paints and cups of water on the tables.

They will paint in the style of Eric Carle, says King. Carle first paints paper in shades of color, she explains, then cuts shapes from the paper to make the pictures for his books. They will do the same and assemble a caterpillar.

The three third-graders work at one table. Serapio Torres is their muse. He closes his eyes. He says he is imagining the colors before committing them to paper. Kelsey Sly and Lorenzo Hernandez respectfully wait.

"Green," Serapio finally says. Kelsey hands him a brush loaded with paint.

The final sprint to dismissal finds King checking off each student's list of 10 to 15 daily tasks as the others blanket the sidewalk with their paintings to dry in the sun, dump the water cups and collect the paints. Franklin is at the cubbies, again inspecting the cicada shell.

King, like elementary school teachers everywhere, finds no indignity in the fact that an educator with almost three decades of experience, who is working on her doctorate at the University of South Florida and pondering a dissertation on multi-age instruction, now finds herself flinging chairs onto tables and mopping spilled paint.

Everyone pitches in so they will have time to free the monarchs before the bus arrives.

King says she sometimes wonders how long it will be before Duette Elementary changes.

The area's booming growth may force the small school to become a big one. Since September, six more students have enrolled. The fifth grade now has five children. King and Coker are teaching 29. Over the last decade, Manatee County's population surged by more than 50,000.

mapEarlier this year community leaders and residents from Duette, Parrish and Myakka City discussed how to preserve their rural lifestyle in development's rush.

The school board is supportive of Duette, but its cost per student is high -- almost twice the state average of $4,500. The school's PTA, area farmers and businesses chip in about $500 per student annually. Last March, supporters paid $5 for plates of fried fish, oysters and strawberry shortcake to raise funds for field trips, school supplies and computers. There is a Fall Festival on Saturday.

The traditions, in a modern world, now make Duette Elementary progressive, says King.

"If we want to make a difference" in education, "we've got to be thinking outside the box," she says.

"Look what they're learning about life."

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