Harris County School For Girls, 1914-1952
In 1913, Judge W. H. Ward discussed the need for a school for the delinquent and dependent girls of Harris County with interested citizens of the county.
Harris County had a boys' home for delinquent boys, but there was no place for girls brought before the court. Texas had no state institutions at that time for girls. Judge Ward asked Ennis Cargill to investigate how other local governments were dealing with the problem. Cargill contacted over 30 localities, received recommendations, and presented his findings to the Judge and a committee of citizens.
Ethel Claxton, a woman with experience working with girls in New York City and Philadelphia, was hired as the superintendent and brought Mary Burnett with her as her assistant. Claxton would remain the superintendent for the existence of the school. The school would be named in honor of Miss Burnett in the 1920s after she died of breast cancer.
In May 1914, the Commissioners Court appropriated the money to build a cottage on 5 acres of land near Bellaire to house 25 girls.
The Girls Home was to be located about 10 miles southwest of Houston.
This map shows where the Girls Home was located. The lower triangle on Richmond Road was the Bayland Orphans Home, currently the Bayland Community Center and Park.
The rectangle at the top right is the location of the Harris County School for Girls. It eventually covered 80 acres. Now it is Burnett-Bayland Park and facilities for both the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department and Child Protection Services.
The Girl’s School was designed as a cottage system. Each cottage would house approximately 25 girls and be designed and furnished to look like a normal home.
The first building completed was a two-story frame structure containing 18 rooms and accommodation for 25 girls. The basement was equipped with a steam heating system. On the first floor were classrooms, assembly rooms, an examination room, and parlor rooms for the teachers. The kitchen, dining rooms, sewing rooms, and officers' rooms were also on the first floor. Large porches surrounded the building.
The quarters for the girls were located on the second floor. There were 14 rooms, each with a personal closet. The bedrooms had access to a “sleeping porch” where the girls could sleep outside during the warm months. There was also a general locker room, linen room, and shared bathrooms and showers. A clock timer controlled lights and the floor was equipped with an Electric Annunciator security alarm. The attic held rooms for at least 10 additional girls.
The first building's design allowed the flexibility of adding an L-shaped structure covering an area of 109 x 65 feet to the original building if more rooms were needed.
Ennis Cargill: “It should be understood, that this is not to be an institution, it is to be a home in every sense of the word . . . It is a well-established fact among social workers that the main cause of delinquency in young girls is the lack of proper environment in their own homes. . . .We will surround them with teachers who will inspire them in life and fit them to perform such domestic duties as may be required. . . .A great number of girls throughout this country who have gone through similar homes to the one we are building have been transferred to other communities where their environments and association have been changed and they have been placed in families where they have made themselves useful. Many have married and have families of their own and attractive and happy homes. It is for these objects that an air of real home life will be established in the new home for girls. If it were not for the influence received there, an irreparable amount of damage could be done.”
Ethel Claxton’s first annual report was published in the papers.
“The object of the school is to teach such branches of domestic science as will enable the girls to become good housekeepers, to give the book instruction that will broaden and better their minds, to make the religious and ethical training that which creates a desire for the best, and to help them enjoy such amusements as are not only physically beneficial but uplifting.”
The girls were assigned to the home by either the Juvenile Court (usually delinquents) or the District Civil Court (usually dependents). Miss Claxton was in charge not only of the girls in the home but also of those who were on probation. The girls assigned to the home would be brought to the home, examined by Dr. Elva Wright, and bathed and dressed. Then the reception committee (part of the girls' government) would show her around the school and her cottage.
She was oriented to the honor system and told that for a month she would be on probation. After that, she could move up. After 2 months with a perfect record and with recommendations from other girls, she could join the Circle. Members of the Circle were taught self-control, given rewards, and special trips.
Every minute of the day was scheduled BUT not necessarily supervised. For example, the girls always had a rest hour, an hour for recreation from 5 to 6 in the evening, study halls, games times, school, gardening/farming, sewing, laundry, and so forth. The girls were kept active with social events and parties, the first one occurring on Halloween 1914.
Self-government as one of the foundations of Progressive Thought was the backbone of the school. Students were encouraged to participate, and by doing so, their voices were heard.
The school provided a practical education for turning the girls into good wives and mothers.
Four girls worked in the cottage kitchen at a time, from washing dishes to waiting on tables. Under the supervision of the cook, they were taught to make all the bread, pastries, and vegetables for the cottage. In 1939, the girls produced 14,744 loaves of bread.
Laundry and Housework –
The laundry was the first skill the girls were taught, working 3 ½ days per week. They were required to do good work before going on to another job. General housework included cleaning and learning how to make their rooms attractive.
The girls made all their own clothes. There were no uniforms. The school provided all the materials. Often when they arrived the girls had only the clothes they were wearing that needed exchanging. They began with hand sewing or plain sewing – darning, mending, and handwork. Eighty percent of the girls knew nothing of sewing when they came to the school. They would then graduate to sewing machines. In 1915 they made a total of 1423 articles of clothing and for the house. In 1939 over 3300 items including clothing, curtains, and sheets were produced.
Although the Board of Control did not emphasize academics, Claxton knew it was important for the girls to get as much schooling as they could. Many of them had never really attended school and were functionally illiterate. All students were tested before being placed into classes. Eventually, the county judge would brag that the girls could enter any university in the country. Some did.
The Academic Department opened on November 2, 1914, and tried to follow the public school schedule and curriculum as much as possible. Study halls in the evening were used to prepare lessons for the following day. Reading was encouraged with materials provided by outside organizations. The first class of graduates accomplished in 4 months the work of 9 months in the Houston Independent School District.
There was more than just classwork. Piano lessons were provided, and eventually, they had a small orchestra. Art was encouraged. They produced a monthly magazine.
Eventually, the school had its own school district – Mary Burnett ISD. Bellaire parents objected to the girls from the school attending Condit Elementary in the 1930s. By February 1937, they demanded action from the county and Houston Independent School District. Girls were bused to high school in Houston – either San Jacinto or Jeff Davis High Schools. During World War II, it was difficult to find teachers due to the low pay offered and a scarcity of qualified staff. Some classes were eliminated, and summer school was held so the girls could get their required classes for graduation.
From 1916 funds were available for advanced training, first from the Masons, later the Altrusa Club, and private individuals. Girls attended Rice and Baylor Universities, nursing, and secretarial schools.
Gardening was encouraged. The original plans for the school included landscaping and a provision for each girl to have their own garden to grow vegetables and flowers. For the first 10 to 15 years, the school cultivated a significant amount of land as the original 5 acres increased to 80 acres. Later, during the 1930s and 1940s, they were beset by poor weather conditions and the difficulties in getting labor and materials to do the work. However, when the weather was good, the gardens at the school were very fertile. The girls did a significant amount of canning and preserving of their crops during bountiful years.
Teas Nursery donated and planted numerous trees, bushes, and flowering plants.
The girls participated in county fairs with their canning and sewing projects, often winning ribbons.
Religious instruction was considered a very important part of the curriculum as it contributed to a moral upbringing. Outside speakers were often included.
There was a daily instruction of 20 minutes. Memorization of Bible verses was encouraged. There was a Sunday School lesson with the afternoon devoted to local pastors of Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic congregations on Sunday mornings. Eventually, the pastors were primarily Protestant. However, Catholic children were taken to Mass every Sunday.
The Christian Endeavor Society was a group that met to study and discuss moral issues. Eventually, there were three groups.
By 1946 the school had its own chapel. Built by a committee from Bellaire who raised $25,000, it was also used by the school's alumni for their weddings. The chapel was torn down in 1968.
Many of the girls did not know how to play and so from 5:00 – 6:00 each night was mandatory playtime. It was important to teach the girls how to enjoy themselves outside of the “questionable” entertainment they were used to. By 1936 they had a swimming pool and 1938 a gym thanks to the Works Progress Administration. With the gym, they could have dances, picture shows, swimming parties, and evenings of games. They would invite residents of the Faith Home and Bayland Boy’s Home to have get-togethers to keep the siblings in touch with one another.
Weekly there would be an evening entertainment that often included outside talent. Outside field trips included picnics at the San Jacinto battleground, lectures at Rice, and trips into town.
By the later years when they had a bus, they often took 60 trips a year to various activities paid for by interested men and women.
The student government committees would hold parties. Of particular interest were the annual Christmas Parties for the Rotarians. These started in 1917 and continued through the life of the girls' school.
All students were examined by Dr. Elva Wright when entering the school and returning from vacation for venereal disease. If infected, they were treated. During the first year of school, 11 girls had their tonsils and adenoids removed, 13 pairs of glasses were purchased, and 22 required dental work.
If students needed to be hospitalized, they were sent to Jeff Davis Hospital (built in 1922). Many had never seen a physician before they entered the school.
The girls received Health Education, including a course on home hygiene and care for the sick. There was a building dedicated to the Junior Red Cross activities.
Eventually, the campus had 4 cottages – Grey, Cargill, Bryan, and Bayland. A superintendent’s home, laundry house, chicken coop, gym, chapel, and other outbuildings. There was the constant concern of upkeep and maintenance.
From the 1939 Annual Report when Ms Claxton listed several jobs that needed doing but added:
“Material advancement is necessary and worth while [sic], but our School was built for one purpose and that only – to give to the underprivileged girl a chance for physical, mental, moral and spiritual growth. It is not easy for any child of early adolescent years to realize the importance of making the most of her time, and in many cases our family is no exception. However, as a whole, they do well.”
However, by 1945 due to the shortage of funds during the Depression and material and workforce shortages during World War II, the buildings had not received the proper maintenance. Water heaters were broken, roofs leaked.
After a period of time in the school, the girls would be placed out of the home. They were placed as domestics, had professional or business jobs usually boarding somewhere, in their parent’s homes or with other relatives, married and in their own homes, in foster homes, or other institutions. There were some years where the placements “didn’t stick” and the girls would return to the school.
Notice the differences between 1939 and 1945. The economic opportunities had improved during the war for women and many were now able to make a living on their own. Also, not as many were resorting to getting married right out of school. The increase in placements back with their families likely reflected the better economic situation.
Girls who left the school were on probation until they were 21 years old. They would be followed up by the home either in person or by telephone. In 1939, 141 girls were on the “visiting” list. They would also come back to the home for visits and stay overnight. And when they graduated or got married or had babies, Miss Claxton would be invited.
The Mary Burnett Home was the only home many of these girls had known, and Miss Claxton and the other house mothers their only mothers.
In 1951 Ethel Claxton moved to the Probation Department, and a new superintendent was appointed for the Mary Burnett Home. Claxton was 70 years old. She was 32 when she started at Harris County.
Why did the Harris County School for Girls end as an institution and end so completely that few people have heard of it, even long-time Bellaire residents?
1. Nationally, the Progressive Era ended with World War I. It never took a stronghold in Texas. But the Girls School had a strong start with 2 cottages and support from the county commissioners and the public. By the 10th anniversary, there was still widespread public support.
2. Leadership. The Mary Burnett Home survived due to the personal energy of Ethel Claxton. She firmly believed in what she was doing and didn’t change her methods for 38 years. She provided good results. She constantly fought for the girls. She was strict but very fair and was much loved. Claxton and her cadre of supporters both in the public and the government were able to fend off changes and could weather the political and economic storms. She and her staff “made due” whenever necessary. For example, she put the younger dependent girls in the Bayland Orphans Home for 2 years until the Bayland Cottage could be built.
3. By the 20th anniversary, Claxton seemed to be fighting for support. The original people on the board of control were dying – Ward passed away in 1936 and Cargill in 1938. The local population was distrustful of the girls and the institutions. She had to continually repeat her message, which makes me think people were questioning the school's existence.
4. The view of women changed with World War II. Although the girls had always been made aware that they were expected to make their way in the world, careers were no longer confined to domestic science. That transition wasn’t being funded.
5. The expense of continuing the home was being questioned more forcefully. The Depression, followed by the scarcities during World War II, put stress on the home when the number of delinquents was rising, but the students in the home were remaining steady or declining. Providing academic education was becoming more difficult and expensive.
6. The move was to get the juveniles whenever possible back with their families as soon as possible. J. W. Mills, a one-time head of Juvenile Probation and a District Court Judge, believed it was better to keep the family together whenever possible by giving funds to the family instead of institutions later after things go wrong. In 1939, 17% were placed in their parents' homes, but in 1945, it increased to 26%.
7. Not as many girls were being placed. In January of 1952, when the boys were moved over to the Burnett home, there were 27 boys and only 54 girls compared to an average population of 166 in 1939 and 84 in 1945.
8. Many changes were to come in the 1950s and 1960s, with an entire move toward deinstitutionalization.
Claxton continued to work for the Probation Department until 1957. By then, the program she had nurtured had become a memory, although the campus continued to be used as the co-educational Burnett-Bayland Home.
Ethel Claxton died in 1965 in a Bellaire nursing home. She was 84 years old and buried in Vermont, where she was raised.
Explore the Harris County School for Girls collection to view portions of Ethel Claxton's scrapbooks.