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Ana Lucrecia Peters, a full-time substitute teacher at Ethel Beckham Elementary School, is listed in Miami-Dade County Public Schools' personnel records as a Hispanic woman. But, like most teachers in the system, she knew that she didn't have to stay that way. In the bureaucratic blink of an eye, she could become black, American Indian, or even an Alaskan Native -- at least as far as the school district was concerned.
Though she joined the district only two years ago, she had already seen several of her colleagues jump through a few fairly simple hoops. Then, badda-bing, they joined a whole new ethnic group, on paper anyway. The system acknowledges five ethnic categories; employees must choose one of these identifications when they first join the district. But a long-standing tradition in Miami-Dade County Public Schools allows employees to change categories at any time. The only catch: You can change ethnicities just once. After that there's no turning back.
Peters heard other teachers describe the policy to her, and watched some invoke that policy. "A lot of people have been changing," she says. Some time later a significant event in her life made her start the process of changing her own ethnicity. Her stepfather, a black man, adopted her and all of her younger siblings. Given that her own heritage was Guatemalan and Cuban, and that she knew she had Afro-Cuban ancestors, she seriously considered the matter, then sent a letter to the district's personnel office downtown.
"I am writing this letter to request a change of ethnicity on my Dade County Public Schools teaching application," she wrote this past October. She described her adoption and awareness of her multicultural lineage, then asked that her ethnic designation be changed to black/non-Hispanic (which, oddly enough, would have made her a non-Hispanic Cuban American). "I feel this simple change will make some things easier for my younger siblings to understand," she wrote. "Thank you so much for your time and attention to this (perhaps unusual) request."
She knew, however, that her request was not at all unusual. Since July 1998, a total of 99 school-district employees, at least 78 of them teachers, have requested that their ethnicity be changed. Of these only one appears to have been rejected outright.
Peters was not rejected, but she's still Hispanic, as far as the school district is concerned. The revised "Restricted Personal Data" form she submitted, on which she marked her new ethnicity as black/non-Hispanic, bears a scribbled note in the upper right-hand corner: "No show, 11/13/98."
"I couldn't go through with it," the 24-year-old teacher says. "I was going to, and everything I wrote in the letter was true, but you have to go [to the personnel department] and talk to someone, and I just decided not to do it."
And though her own reasons for requesting a change seemed sincere, she knows that many people in the system have made, and continue to make, such a change for "other reasons."
What reasons, specifically? "Well, to get a job," she says with a small chuckle.
There's a widespread practice within Miami-Dade County Public Schools that might well be called "The Controlled-Staffing Shuffle." By court order every school in the county must maintain a certain ethnic balance in its faculty. If a school reaches the minimum or maximum level for a given ethnicity, then that school is placed on "controlled staffing" -- in other words the ethnicity of an incoming teacher must be considered before any teacher can be hired. For years teachers have routinely changed their ethnicity to circumvent the restrictions of controlled staffing.
Few admit this is why they do it, though. The teachers often tell the district they made a mistake on the form when they joined up, or that they just found out about their Cherokee great-grandmother. As one teacher notes, "It's always, 'I discovered an error,' or, 'I traced my roots back to Little Running Wolf.'"
Disingenuous? Probably. Even so, Peters is sympathetic to teachers who pull this maneuver. "In a way, I understand it," she says. "It's sad that people have to play the system, that qualified teachers [sometimes have] no other way to get into a school [other than] changing their race."
The students, faculty, and staff of Miami-Dade County mirror the multicultural tapestry of races, ethnicities, and national origins that make up South Florida. This vast melange of languages and traditions is boiled down to five possible labels within the school system: white/non-Hispanic, black/non-Hispanic, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaskan Native. When it comes to school employees, the only ones for whom the courts monitor ethnic balance are teachers.
And though there are five categories, the only distinction with any concrete bearing on a teacher's job status is this: Either you're black, or you're not. When it comes to getting a job, both can be beneficial or detrimental.
The court desegregation rulings that govern teachers, handed down in 1969 and 1970, are geared to prevent schools from becoming "racially identifiable," says school board attorney Phyllis Douglas. And though housing patterns often create schools in which the student population is predominantly of one ethnic group, the district has created a system to maintain diversity between black and nonblack faculty.