LOS ANGELES – After volunteering at her children's Los Angeles middle school for nearly a decade, Carol Convey was told the number of teachers suddenly would be cut.
The problem? The school now had too many white students.
To Convey, the diverse, multiethnic community looked no different from before, so she began to wonder whether her neighbors had changed, or only how they identified on paper.
The question has sparked a lively debate in the country's second-largest school district, which under a decades-old court settlement aimed at desegregation provides additional staffing when more than 70 percent of students hailing from the surrounding neighborhood are not white.
Across the country, school districts have long grappled with desegregation and pursued a range of policies including changing boundaries, opening magnet schools and focusing resources on campuses with nonwhite students.
In Los Angeles, parents were shocked earlier this year when they learned Walter Reed Middle School — known for its honors program, specialized learning academies and diverse student body of 1,600 — would no longer qualify for the additional staffing due to an uptick in its white student enrollment.
District officials could not pinpoint a reason for the demographic shift, which dates back two years.
But some parents doubt there is much change, adding they have friends who didn't put down their children's heritage on school forms fearing they could be labeled English learners and subjected to additional testing.
Now, these parents are being encouraged to change how they answered questions about their children's race and ethnicity to more fully reflect their background — and Convey said more than a dozen people have voiced interest in doing so.
"They have a perception that maybe I need to skirt it, hide it, not share it, because it may work against me in some way," said Convey, founder of a parent group that supports the school. "We have had to educate and say, 'No, no, no people. Our funding depends on us being so different, so let's write it down. Let's tell everyone. Let's celebrate this.'"
The discussion underscores the critical role race plays in education decisions even though the questionnaires used to determine identity often feel inadequate or confusing to those filling them out.
It also suggests some parents may answer the forms based on what they think will most help their children, choosing to focus on or de-emphasize parts of their identity.
Thomas A. Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said he does not know parents who deliberately skew their answers on enrollment forms, but the incentive to do so exists in the Los Angeles Unified School District since white students have a better shot at getting into some magnet schools aimed at desegregation.
About three-quarters of Los Angeles Unified's students are Latino, and fewer than 10 percent identify as white, according to district data. That's a marked shift from 1978, the year the district proposed a court settlement to desegregate its schools, which at the time were 39 percent Latino and 30 percent white.
As a result, the majority of Los Angeles Unified schools today — 88 percent — receive the additional staffing to keep classes smaller, district statistics show.
Every year, a handful of schools lose or gain staffing when their demographics shift.
District officials, however, said they don't think parents lie about their children's race or ethnicity, but rather the data taken over two years reflects changes in the surrounding neighborhood or in how many children attend local schools.
"I think people are proud of their identity," said Greg McNair, the district's chief business and compliance counsel. "People like who they are, want to be who they are (and) don't want to pretend they're someone else."
In response to the parents' uproar, the district has rejigged funding to save all but one of the teachers the school would have lost because of the data shift, he said.
In the meantime, parents are planning to educate families at Reed about the enrollment forms and urge those who may have omitted information when they signed up their children for elementary school to make changes now.
They hope the school's demographic data will then shift back, renewing Reed's eligibility for the desegregation program.
So far, several parents have asked to review their enrollment paperwork at the school, said Barbara Jones, a district spokeswoman.
Reed parent Veronica Gonzalez said she can see why parents might find the forms confusing.
When asked if her child was Hispanic, she checked yes, but in a subsequent question about race, she didn't know what to answer so she crossed out one of the other checkboxes and wrote in "Hispanic."
Parents inherently seek to do what they believe is best for their children but often lack information about how this data is used, said Lisa Garcia Bedolla, professor at the University of California, Berkeley's Graduate School of Education.
"We treat this like bureaucratic record keeping, but the reality is, what you are choosing matters," she said.