What's My Lineage

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.

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.

Sometimes Bevan's inspirational speeches will dissuade potential race jumpers, but more often than not, they go through with it. Bevan says 99 requests since this past July sounds like a fairly average number for all the years he's been in personnel.

Bevan doesn't necessarily have the last word on the matter, though. He reports to Gwendolyn Jennings Kidney, assistant superintendent. Once in a while teachers whom Bevan rebuffs appeal to her office; sometimes she spot-checks the process.

Such was the case when Natalie Roxane Florido, a teacher's aide at Snapper Creek Elementary, asked to have her ethnicity changed from Hispanic to black. "I, Natalie Florido, would like to change my ethnicity to black, in order to better represent my ethnic origin," she wrote this past November.

Kidney remembers that, at that time, she had told Bevan to send "the next four or five" prospective ethnicity switchers to her office. When she spoke to Florido, Kidney says, "She couldn't tell me why she wanted to change. She just said, 'They told me I could do it.'" Kidney rejected her request.

Although Florido was turned down, 98 others were not. Their written statements (usually handwritten, sometimes typed), never more than a page long, prove that, for the most part, the school district will simply take your word for it if you tell them you want to change.

Numerous written statements cite an "error" on the previous form, or a multicultural person's desire to identify with a different branch of the family tree.

Patterns do emerge from the text of these statements. Eight of the ninety-nine included a reference to a family reunion of some kind (including one trip to Cuba) as their reason for requesting a change. Twenty of the applicants stated they had done "biological" or "genealogical" research (including one meeting with a relative recently arrived from Cuba), which prompted their desire to switch. Three of the statements contain expressions of regret that no "other" or "multicultural" designation exists for teachers. (Students can be identified as multicultural, though few are.)

These notes can occasionally provide compelling reading, as in the case of Brownsville Middle School language arts teacher Meta Smith, who found out that her mother's husband was not, as she had previously believed, in fact her biological father. Smith asked that her ethnicity be changed to Hispanic to honor her deceased, Puerto Rican father. "I need to be true to myself and my family, even though they haven't been very true to me," she writes.

While many of the notes are unremarkable, and others are touching, quite a few are puzzling. Claude Edward Brown, a physical education teacher at Holmes Elementary, writes: "Due to the damage Hurricane Mitchell [sic] has done to Central America (Honduras), Mitchell has taken away my family. Between me and my brother we are the only ones that carry this Hondurian [sic] tradition in our blood. So if it is not a problem, I ... would like to be considered as Hondurian." He changed from black to Hispanic.

Sarah Ceberio, a teacher's aide at John G. DuPuis Elementary, writes, "I want to change my etnicity [sic] because I'm black and for sentimental feeling [sic]." She changed from Hispanic to black.

The "To whom it may concern" note from Iris Allen, a second-grade teacher at Earlington Heights Elementary, is a real baffler: "As a result of having a recent family reunion and tracing through our heritage, I found out that during the time my father was in the Navy I have relatives in the Pacific Islands. Therefore, I request that my ethnicity be changed to Pacific Islander." She changed from black to Asian/Pacific Islander.

Ruby Milligan, a senior-high language arts teacher at the University of Miami/Knight Center, wins the prize for candor. "Please be advised that I wish to change my ethnicity so that I can be eligible for positions and services that are unavailable to me now," she writes. She notes that her grandmother was Native American, "and I choose to change my ethnicity to my grandmother's." She changed from black to American Indian.

As ill-advised as Bevan might think the career-goal-motivated switcheroo might be, the applicants just keep on coming.

The irony is that teachers often change their ethnicity because they want to teach students of the ethnicity they are changing from.

Staffing patterns tend to follow the housing patterns, i.e., schools in predominantly black neighborhoods, with predominantly black student populations, will tend to be at or close to the allowable maximum for black teachers. The inverse is often true for predominantly nonblack schools.

One teacher contacted for this story, who changed ethnicity from black to American Indian, says that controlled staffing can be a real problem given the difficulty in retaining nonblack teachers at some of Miami's big, inner-city high schools.

"Black males can be intimidating, especially to female teachers who aren't black," the teacher says. And sometimes, the teacher adds, the rowdier high school students will try to "run this white bitch outta here."

This teacher also points out the relatively low percentage of black teachers permitted at high schools -- 28 percent, as opposed to 36 percent at elementaries and 43 percent at middle schools -- has the effect of excluding black teachers from higher paying jobs. High schools can offer a teacher extra money through numerous "supplemental" positions (coaching sports, advising academic clubs and teams, serving as a department chairperson), that don't exist at elementary or middle schools.

"Why is that?" the teacher asks sardonically. In a more earnest tone, the teacher charges: "If you're facing racist practices, why not try to get in through the back door?"

For black teachers that door usually is labeled "American Indian" or "Hispanic" -- though one black teacher, born of a black parent and a white parent, did change her ethnicity from black to white.

An oddity about the one-time-only ethnicity-change policy in Miami-Dade County is that no other school district of comparable size has a similar one in place. Officials from the nation's only three urban school districts larger than Miami-Dade's (New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago), from the fifth largest (Broward County), and from three other large, urban, Southern systems (Atlanta, Houston, and Palm Beach County) have responded to questions about teachers changing their ethnic spots with a collective, "Huh?"

In Broward it was, "What?!" Theresa Uraga, an assistant in the personnel office of Broward County Public Schools, had a hard time not sounding flabbergasted when she heard that nearly 100 people hopscotched ethnicities within the past year in Miami-Dade County. Her boss, director of administrative procedures Sarah Mowery, reports that her school district has no similar policy in place.

Up the road in Palm Beach County, Melinda Wong, director of personnel, was not blind-sided by the question. She says that about ten school employees per year will change their ethnicity, usually citing an error. She points out that her district has nothing comparable to Miami-Dade's controlled-staffing mandate.

"I don't have any experience with that," responds Marvin Jacobs, director of management and information services for the New York City Board of Education. "My feeling is that, the way things work here, there'd be a change form. I've never done it, but there's a form here for anything." Still if such a form or policy exists in the Big Apple, he's never heard of it.

Carlos Ponce, director of human resources for the Chicago Public Schools, says his district doesn't have that kind of policy either. If someone did want to switch ethnicities, Ponce says, "We'd probably take it on a case-by-case basis. I'd probably end up calling the feds, the Bureau of Civil Service, the Civil Rights Office, to make sure I covered my bases."

In the City of Angels Sheldon Erlich, spokesman for the Los Angeles Unified School District, says his district "makes an effort to provide for diversity among school staffs." Los Angeles doesn't face the same controlled-staffing court order as Miami-Dade. This obviates the biggest incentive to change ethnicity, but even so, Erlich isn't sure that Los Angeles schools would easily allow even the one-time change permitted in Miami-Dade.

"One of our attorneys told me that we'd be reluctant to allow a change unless there was some compelling reason to do it," Erlich says. "When they're hired and filling out that paperwork, they're really signing off under penalty of perjury that [the information given] is true. To say that one day you're Hispanic, and another day you're something else, I don't think that would generally be allowed."

Atlanta Public Schools has no ethnicity-change procedure. "That's kind of out of left field," says Sidney Camp, personnel director.

Houston, do we have a problem? "It's been years since we've had anyone submit an ethnicity change," says Houston Independent School District spokeswoman Lisa Bunse. "We're not under any staffing mandates."

The brass at Miami-Dade County Public Schools knows they have a policy, but they can't remember when or how it got started. Between them deputy superintendent of schools Henry C. Fraind and school board attorney Phyllis Douglas have nearly 60 years of experience in the district. As far back as they can remember, M-DCPS employees have had the option of changing their ethnicity one time.

In a morning meeting in Fraind's office, Douglas muses that the policy must have existed even before the 1969 and 1970 desegregation orders. (Douglas, who is retiring June 30, joined the school system in 1971.) "It's an unwritten policy," she notes.

Fraind joined up as a teacher in 1969, and he clearly remembers teachers talking about the policy, or tradition, in the Seventies. "The talk was always there in the teachers' lounge, 'If you want to get ahead in the system, become Spanish, Henry,'" he says. "Look what happened: I never did it. I remained white. But that's what I used to hear. It wasn't about blacks, it was, 'Start thinking Hispanic, because the Hispanics are going to take over.' That's exactly what they used to say in the lounge, and I got out of that lounge very quickly, because once you get in the teachers' lounge, that's where all the rumors begin and you get in trouble with the principal," he adds with a snicker.

Douglas recalls that the ethnicity-change issue has worked its way to her office on a few occasions -- when people have wanted to change a second time. "We figured one time was enough," she says. "You don't go around saying, 'Well, gee, I want to get in touch with my Hispanic roots today, and tomorrow I want to get in touch with my African-American roots.' I think once is reasonable, and more than that is not."

She sees a clear-cut reason for limiting teachers to one change, and for subjecting prospective heritage hoppers to at least a few polite questions from Bud Bevan and/or Gwen Kidney. "If people were doing it and were not sincere, one of the reasons could be trying to transfer into a school that was on controlled staffing," she allows. "Another reason could be, as Henry said, the group that they perceive could do them the most good, which wouldn't have anything to do with [the desegregation order].


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