The Unchanging Face of Milby

For more than 70 years, Milby High School has educated working class kids from the East End. In the early 1960s, I was one of them. I recently went back to Milby to see not what had changed, but what, if anything, remained.

That second-floor gym was there in March 1926, when 13 teachers and 212 students walked from the old Harrisburg High School a few blocks south to a new building at 1601 Broadway and the corner of Old Galveston Road. Built for $180,000, Charles H. Milby High School featured a Romanesque facade, with three arched portals for an entryway topped by an ornamental balustrade. The new high school had been named for a prominent Harrisburg businessman who had died the year before. Milby had been an important advocate for the creation of the Houston Ship Channel. His imposing, galleried brick house on Broadway overlooked the docks only a few blocks north of the new school. Too expensive to restore and maintain, the Milby house, where four generations had lived, was torn down in 1959. Today the lot is overgrown with weeds and Chinese tallow trees.

So far, that has not been the high school's fate. If anything, the school district has invested in Milby, adding more classrooms and shops, building a new gym and auditorium, buying up property behind the school and moving the football field and track to accommodate the new classrooms. The expansion was needed to accommodate the growing Hispanic population in the East End.

When I was at Milby, Hispanics accounted for around 10 percent of the school population. Now the school is 85 percent Hispanic, 7 percent African-American, 4 percent Anglo and 3 percent Asian. Hispanics are already the dominant ethnic group in HISD, and within the next few years the district will have a majority of Hispanic students. How district administrators and board members -- who are primarily Anglos and African-Americans -- deal with Milby will to some extent indicate the future of the district.

The district's worst blunder concerning Milby came in 1988, when then-superintendent Joan Raymond appointed the first outsider as principal of the school, which has had only five principals. Milby's founding principal, W.I. Stevenson, didn't retire until 1960. He was succeeded by an amiable, low-key speech teacher named Roscoe Bayless, who had served Stevenson for many years as an assistant principal. When Bayless retired in 1971, he was succeeded by Claude Brinkley, a well-liked coach at Milby who had been Bayless's assistant principal. These men had run the school pretty much like benign parents, letting the teachers go where their inclinations led them.

Raymond, whose high-handed ways led to her departure as superintendent after only three years, forced Brinkley into early retirement and gave his job to Michael McClellan, an administrator who had followed Raymond to Houston from Yonkers, New York. McClellan spoke Spanish and was married to a Hispanic, but he had no roots in the community. He abolished the vocational classes in refrigeration, electrical trades and home economics, deeming them condescending to his Hispanic clientele. From then on, McClellan declared, Milby would be a "colegio preparatoria." McClellan believed in improving student self-esteem through slogans and blocked the dignified arches of the front entryway with a huge sign proclaiming "Through these doors walk the best students in HISD."

To make sure that the teachers knew who was boss, he moved them around from classrooms they had used for years. He demoted department heads and recruited his own, expecting them to report to him what teachers were saying. Some department heads resigned their appointments in disgust, and for the first time in years, Milby began having teacher turnover problems. Raymond's successor, Frank Petruzielo, pushed McClellan out in 1992 and replaced him with Richard Vasquez, a former assistant principal at Milby. Once again, Milby was being run by one of its own.

Vasquez is an easygoing former coach who grew up in the East End and starred as a basketball player at Milby's archrival, Austin High. After playing ball at San Jacinto Junior College and the University of Florida, he coached at Bellaire for ten years, not very successfully, he points out. Tired of the long hours and the obsessiveness required for coaching, Vasquez turned to administration. His philosophy as a principal, he says, is to find teachers who care about kids and provide them the support to teach. Just managing 3,600 students, let alone educating them, is a daunting task, but the hallways are clean and quiet and the hordes of students seem to make their transitions from class to class smoothly and effectively.

One day I sat with assistant principal Milton Morgan at the back of the cafeteria, watching him handle lunchroom duty. A former football coach, Morgan has spent the last ten years at Milby. He has a booming voice and a no-nonsense manner and he seemed in constant motion, talking, waving, warning one boy to tuck in his shirttail, telling a girl to clean off the table as she left, asking the kids standing around a table and getting loud to break it up and move on.

We were sitting at the lunch duty desk when a tearful girl walked up with her mother and Richard Martinez, a military retiree who spends nearly every day at the school enforcing discipline as a parent volunteer. Martinez had singled the girl out because her skirt was too short, and she protested the "unfairness" of the way the school's dress code is enforced. Some things never change. When I was in school, the dean of girls kept a sweater in her office to cover low-cut blouses. And sandals were forbidden, toes being sexy. (In retrospect, it seems that adults didn't want us to miss out on anything.)

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