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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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The current ethnic breakdown of the 20,100 Miami-Dade County schoolteachers is 39.3 percent white/non-Hispanic; 33.2 percent Hispanic; 26.4 percent black/non-Hispanic; and 1.1 percent either Asian/Pacific Islander or American Indian/Alaskan Native.
The school board's policy regarding faculty racial ratios is based on the district-wide percentages of faculty at the four different types of public schools. At elementary schools, no less than 24 percent and no more than 36 percent of faculty can be black; at kindergarten-through-eighth grade centers, no less than 24 percent and no more than 43 percent can be black; at middle schools, no less than 21 percent and no more than 43 percent can be black; and at high schools, no less than 12 percent and no more than 28 percent can be black.
Neither the court orders nor board rules set guidelines or limitations for the percentage of any ethnic group other than black.
If any school reaches either the "ceiling" or the "floor" for black teachers, it is placed on controlled staffing. At last count twenty elementary schools, four middle schools, and four high schools were on controlled staffing. (See "Under Control" sidebar, page 32.) Waivers can allow a school to go above or below these percentages, but only under certain circumstances (a teacher returning from leave, for example).
Here's where ethnicity changing comes in. Though it's difficult to tell where each teacher wanted to get a job, the fact remains that all but a handful of the requested changes in the past year crossed the black/nonblack divide, in both directions. These kinds of changes could help a teacher get hired at a controlled-staffing school.
Forty-eight of the ninety-nine requested a change to black/non-Hispanic. Twenty-three requested a change to American Indian/Alaskan Native. Nineteen asked to become Hispanic, eight to become Asian/Pacific Islander, and one person decided to become white/non-Hispanic. The previous ethnicities of all of these aspirants were not readily available. Among the 83 that were, the most common transformations were from Hispanic to black (41), followed by black to American Indian (17), black to Hispanic (11), white to Hispanic (5), black to Asian (4), white to American Indian (2), black to white (1), white to black (1), and Asian to black (1). All but seven of these changes were between black and nonblack.
The appearance of 23 new Indian teachers is not only bizarre, it is statistically significant. As of the 1998-99 school year, the district only had 77 Indians on its instructional staff. To put this in perspective, the 1997 Indian Labor Force Report from the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs states there are only 5371 Indians in the entire state of Florida: 589 Miccosukees and 4782 Seminoles.
Essentially half of the 100 ethnicity changers switched to black, and most of the rest switched from black. Why? Controlled staffing. For example if a black teacher is applying for a job at a middle school that is maxed out for black teachers (at 43 percent), it would be advantageous to "discover" that a grandma was part Iroquois. Or Puerto Rican. Or Thai. Whichever, by becoming nonblack the teacher would be eligible to work at that school.
The reverse also works. If an Hispanic teacher wants to apply for a job at a middle school that is maxed out for nonblacks (79 percent), it would behoove him or her to "discover" that a grandpa was Afro-Cuban. Or Afro-Colombian. Or Afro-Dominican. Whichever, by becoming black the teacher would be eligible to work at that school.
Exactly what does it take to undergo such a bureaucratic metamorphosis? When it comes down to it, all you really have to do to change your ethnicity in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools system is meet the penetrating hazel stare of William "Bud" Bevan without flinching.
"I don't do DNA testing, and you can't tell by looking at somebody," says Bevan, director of personnel records. The only real hurdle is perceived sincerity. Even though it's a pretty low hurdle, Bevan says he always makes it clear that there's no turning back. "What I do is ask them why they want to change and then make sure they know they can only do this one time. If you can't tell me why you want to change, then I'm going to reject you."
Deputy superintendent Nelson Diaz, who oversees the personnel department, emphasizes that people don't have to bring in birth certificates, disks containing genealogies downloaded from the Mormons, brown paper bags, or any other props to successfully assert that they ain't what they used to be.
"We're not here to make a judgment on people," Diaz stresses. "We're not here to say, 'You have blond hair, blue eyes, and now you want to change yourself to an African American?' We're not here to make that judgment. It is our understanding that a person has a right to put down what they think they are."
Even so Bevan is acutely aware of the scuttlebutt that a new cultural identity could be the key to success within the school system. And if you have the gall to come right out and say that in front of him (as some have), he'll scuttle your butt in a hurry.
"If you think that changing your ethnicity can help your career, then you're just dumb," Bevan says. He points out that, while moving from black to nonblack or vice versa might have the short-term benefit of allowing a teacher to get hired at a particular school on controlled staffing, it might work against the teacher if she wanted to change schools further down the road. "It's a double-edged sword," he warns.