School asks: Is she black or white? If they don't decide soon, PS 13 won't give them reports on performance Friday, May 19, 2006 By YOAV GONEN By STATEN ISLAND ADVANCE The parents of Ada Carr of Rosebank have until Tuesday to decide whether their 5-year-old daughter is white or black. If they don't choose, they've been told they would not get complete reports on the biracial girl's performance in kindergarten, and Ada would be assigned a racial category by Principal Mark Gray of PS 13, according to a letter recently sent home from the Rosebank school. Along with the letter, which Ada's mother, Marcy Carr, who is white, described as "threatening," was a Student Ethnic Identification form with five boxes among which to choose: American Indian or Alaskan Native; Asian or Pacific Islander; Hispanic; Black, Not of Hispanic Origin; and White, Not of Hispanic Origin. No other options were listed. "The thing that irks me is that people still think (race) matters. They're asking her to deny half her heritage," said her father, Adrian Carr, who is black. "Until she went to school, I was brown and her mother was pink." The purpose of the racial assignments, city, state and federal education officials say, is to determine whether schools are making adequate yearly progress -- guidelines set by states in order to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act -- for specific categories of children. But what's less clear is the level of flexibility each government agency has in selecting the parameters used to identify city public school students. A city Education Department spokeswoman said the city already had asked the state for a sixth category of "biracial" to be added to the identification system, but was told that federal guidelines don't allow it. A federal Department of Education spokesman disputed that, countering that the five racial/ethnic categories employed in New York are just the minimum standard, and that states are free to include other categories. He named Washington, D.C., and seven states -- Alaska, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania -- as entities that use "other" or "multiracial" categories for general student identification purposes. Several of the states also employ those categories to measure student progress. "What NCLB requires is that the states determine what their major ethnicity groups are and write them into their accountability workbook," said the spokesman, Chad Colby. He said New York's use of only five categories to measure accountability is "what the state has chosen." While state Education Department spokesman Tom Dunn suggested there may be some room for flexibility on a state level, he said the state was following federal guidelines for identifying students by race and ethnicity. "The feds say use five (categories). They may say, 'And if you want to, use more.' That may be the case," said Dunn. "Our understanding is the feds say use five." Dunn anticipated that two racial/ethnic categories would be added to the state list soon, including one for biracial students. He also addressed assertions made in the letter to the Carr family that they would not get detailed report cards if they failed to make a racial determination, calling the notion "absolutely wrong." "A child that is not identified still gets a report," said Dunn. Principal Mark Gray did not return a call seeking comment. While it isn't clear how many students have been forced to choose a category they're uncomfortable with or have had one chosen for them by school administrators, the 2000 census counted nearly 8,000 Staten Islanders who identified themselves as being of two or more races, and an additional 853 who identified themselves as being of an "other race." "You cannot be forced to pick, that's ridiculous," said Aurelia Mack, a children's advocate who has dealt with mixed-race identities within her own family. "It leads to a false type or incorrect statistics." When Ada was asked to describe herself either in terms of a race or color, the vibrant 5-year-old uttered one word: "Beautiful." To her mother, who said she would not comply with the school's request to categorize the girl, it proved a point. "There's people telling us that that's not a good enough answer," said Mrs. Carr. "What kind of world do we live in where a 5-year-old needs to deny her own heritage in order for her school to get funded?" Yoav Gonen covers education news for the Advance. He may be reached at [email protected]. Excerpts from the letter To Parent/Guardian: As you may know, your child has taken State tests that are used to measure his or her individual performance in English language arts and in math this year. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act ("NCLB"), the New York City Department of Education ("DOE") is required to report these test results and other information, including race/ethnicity, for all students attending New York City public schools to the New York State Education Department ("SED") . . . The SED requires that students be identified in one of five ethnic/racial categories -- American Indian or Alaskan Native; Asian or Pacific Islander; Hispanic; Black, not of Hispanic Origin; and White, Not of Hispanic Origin... The SED has informed the DOE that all students must be identified in one of five ethnic/racial categories listed above for the students' results to be included in calculations of a school's performance. . . Our records show that your child does not have an ethnic/racial category on file. This information is important not only for you to able to receive a detailed breakdown of your child's performance on state assessment, but also so that an accurate determination about the performance of your child's school can be made. Because this information is so critical and is required by law, if you do not complete and return this form by Tuesday, May 23rd the DOE will ask the principal of your child's school to use his or her best efforts to select the appropriate category for your child.