Columbia school district starts multiracial identification

Monday, January 4, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 5:32 p.m. CST, Monday, January 4, 2010

COLUMBIA — For the first time, a student at Blue Ridge Elementary School got to check three boxes on the race and ethnicity identification form this year.

Following a new federal requirement, Columbia Public Schools is implementing a system for students and staff to identify as multiracial. Each school is asking staff and students' families to fill out surveys that allow more than one choice for race and ethnicity.

"It's more of a reflection of what our community looks like," said Michelle Baumstark, Columbia Public Schools spokeswoman.

The first choice on the form is a question that asks whether you are Hispanic. The government considers Hispanic an ethnicity, not a race. If you are Hispanic, you check the "yes" box and then another box for your race. If you are not Hispanic, you then skip to choosing a race from white, black, Asian or Native American/Pacific Islander. The new system categorizes people of Middle Eastern descent as "white."

The government also provides charts that suggest a race based on country of origin or language. If a student's family refuses to complete the survey, the school asks the student. If that fails as well, a school administrator chooses an identity for the student based on observation.

The information will be used only by the school and government to determine the demographics of schools more accurately. The federal government allowed people to choose "multiracial" on the 2000 census for the first time, followed by requiring all federal agencies to do the same.

Cheryl Brewer, principal's secretary at Blue Ridge, oversaw the process of distributing the forms and inputting the data. Few families called the school, and none refused to fill out the form.

"I was actually glad, personally, because we do have multiracial students," she said.

Blue Ridge's minority population is about 57.5 percent, divided among five racial and ethnic categories. The No Child Left Behind Act uses the test scores of minority students, among other factors, to evaluate each school's performance. Martha Myers, district data services manager, said a sixth category called "multiracial" will probably be added in the next year when the results of the two standardized tests used in Missouri by No Child Left Behind are released, but she hasn't received any official directions yet.

Hickman High School handed out the forms at the beginning of the school year. Principal Michael Jeffers said the addition of another subgroup could make reporting on subgroup performance difficult because students may switch from one to another, but it's too early to tell.

The schools have until the end of the academic year to survey their students. Myers said she will begin looking at the data in the spring. Staff members completed the surveys already, so when the district moves to its new finance system, that information can be plugged in.

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Nathan Stephens January 5, 2010 | 8:21 a.m.

I think that this is an excellent change because no one should be forced to choose one race over another when they are in fact bi-racial or multiracial. I recognize that this may create some difficulties for the Columbia Public Schools in the beginning but I trust that we have qualified and capable individuals that can rememdy that problem in the interests of students, families and more accurate reporting.

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