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.

The girl's mother defended her daughter to Morgan, saying she had never been in trouble before and that she was a good girl. She then turned to Martinez, and demanded he speak Spanish to her. There followed an intense exchange in Spanish between the two of them while the daughter sniffled and Morgan watched. At the end, Martinez apologized.

The student had a point. As I scanned the crowded lunchroom, it was easy to pick out other skirts that were shorter than two inches above the knee. Because class pictures were being taken, all the cheerleaders were wearing their uniforms that day, and their skirts broke at mid-thigh. There were girls displaying cleavage, girls with blue jeans that seemed painted on, and girls wearing form-clinging blouses that left little to the imagination. By comparison, the girl in trouble seemed positively demure.

So one thing had stayed the same. Schools are still driven by process as much as results. Every boy must tuck in his shirttail. When I was at Milby, it was a matter of neatness, of showing respect, of acting grown-up. Now, shirttails worn outside have become a symbol of gangs, and a potential hiding place for weapons. None of the students or teachers I talked to said they had ever seen a weapon at school, and they say they feel safe there, though a boy was shot in the cafeteria in 1991.

Such incidents give Milby a reputation for toughness, probably much of it undeserved. Students tend to regard the concern over their clothes with weary disdain, as a form of harassment from adults they must put up with. Vasquez believes it is only a matter of time before Milby solves the constant hassle by requiring school uniforms.

Two or 3 percent of the students cause most of Milby's problems, Morgan said, echoing a theme I would hear from other administrators and teachers. And the kids who are most at risk are in the freshman class. There were no freshmen at Milby when I went to school. Ninth graders were assigned to junior high schools, which created problems when tough, bitter teenagers, aged 14, 15 and even 16, mingled with small, vulnerable 12-year-olds.

Now the ninth graders have been moved to the senior high schools, where they present Milby's biggest learning and discipline problems. Many of these students come to high school two grade levels behind in reading and math. They are the ones, for the most part, who are wearing baggy jeans and letting their shirttails out, and some, if they are not in gangs, are aping the behavior of gangs. Their graffiti had to be blasted off the back of the school building before classes started this fall. These are the kids who are about to drop out.

One of the worst misrepresentations in Texas school statistics is the way dropout rates are reported. They are calculated by comparing the number of dropouts against the entire school population, resulting in rates of anywhere from 3 to 6 percent, numbers that seem so low as to be innocuous.

The completion rate is much easier to understand, and can readily be discerned in a school, a school district or the state by simply comparing the number of freshmen to the number of seniors. Invariably, freshmen significantly outnumber seniors. Sure, it's not scientific; some children drop out but complete GEDs, others will move elsewhere and finish their high-school work.

But these are the numbers that Milby teachers live with. For the past several years, the school has had 1,300 to 1,400 freshmen, but it graduates only about 500 to 600 seniors, not many more than when I was in school with about 1,900 students. One teacher who kept the students in his homeroom class over four years says he started with 38 freshmen and finished with only 12 seniors.

Using my high-school yearbook photos, I counted 710 sophomores in 1961; three years later, 528 seniors had their photos taken. Judging who was Hispanic by their last names, I found 101 Hispanic students in my sophomore class, but by senior year, 35 of them were gone. Of the 609 Anglos, 66 disappeared. So about 90 percent of the Anglos completed school at Milby back then, compared to 65 percent of the Hispanics.

If anyone was alarmed about this disparity at the time, I don't recall hearing about it. But then many of us were goal-driven students, with absolutely no thoughts of dropping out of high school. And many of us were going to be the first children in our families to complete college.

By the time we got to high school, the rougher kids seem to have dropped away. In the files on Milby at the Texas Room of the Houston Public Library, I found a 1962 newspaper story about four Milby boys who bought beer at a Telephone Road convenience store and instead of going to the football game, got drunk, threw eggs at a woman and broke her glasses, then peeled rubber in front of a cop car on the La Porte freeway, and were chased at speeds of 75 mph before crashing into a tree in the front yard of a nearby neighborhood. Their names were not printed in the story and I haven't the foggiest idea of who they were. They probably missed a good football game, because we won district that year.

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What a great read,Mike is very talented. I will enjoy sending this on.

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