SACRAMENTO &mdash Martin Luther King Jr. would be pleased by the way students in Laguna Creek High School's "unity class" embody his dream of "a nation where they will be not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
The 37 students in teacher Jeanne Kirchofer's classroom in Elk Grove span many combinations of race and ethnicity. About half said they would rather be identified as Americans, erasing race from the boxes on forms and tests.
They reflect a trend in California schools, where growing numbers of students and parents decline to state race.
"We shouldn't be judged by our race," said senior Jessica Mae Belcher, 17, whose roots are African and Cherokee. She prefers "none of the above" because "we're all different but we're all the same, too."
She likes sharing her classmates' unique American journeys from Mexico, China, Japan, Laos, India, Vietnam, Italy and the Philippines.
"I'm not saying we're going to forget where we came from, but we can all see similarities from different hardships," Jessica said. By eliminating racial categories — and racial consciousness — "we can make racial hatred go away," she said. Eighteen classmates agreed.
"If we were all one race then there wouldn't be any racism," said Mike Obi, 14, whose roots are Italian and Nigerian. He said his parents declined to state his race on his school registration form.
From 2006 to 2009, the number of Elk Grove Unified School District students whose parents listed their race as "multiple/no response" went from 500 to 6,200 -- a twelve-fold jump in three years, the California Department of Education says. About one of every 10 of the district's students now lists race as "multiple/no response."
The trend is more dramatic statewide. Data show the number of kindergarten-through-12th-grade students listing their race as "multiple/no response" has jumped 70 percent, from 124,000 in 2006 to 210,000 last year.
But the U.S. Department of Education, which is trying to close the achievement gap between races, is asking school officials to "eyeball" students who decline to state and check a box for them.
Observer can check a box
"We know and the feds know you can't force someone to fill out a form. So what the feds have actually said is to more strongly encourage them to self-identify," said Keric Ashley, the state Education Department's director of data management. "If all those efforts fail and the parents refuse, the feds say school officials should observe and report a race."
The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to ensure students of all races achieve proficiency in English and math by 2014. So, the agency is pressing schools to identify all students by race in 2010-11 or face penalties.
According to the federal register, there no longer will be a "no race and/or ethnicity unknown" category and schools will use "observer identification" when a parent or guardian refuses to identify race.
But California refuses to force schools to rely on "third party observation" for students who decline to state, Ashley said. "We're allowing them to report it's intentionally left blank."
Monitoring the progress of historically underserved students to ensure they're getting the same education and achieving at the same level as white and Asian students makes sense, Ashley said.
"But you can probably do that without picking a fight over 'decline to state,' " especially when that category's growing, he said.
A lively debate bubbled up in the Laguna Creek class last week. Daniel White, 15, designates African-American.
"I claim my heritage. We come from Africa, we're spiritual people," Daniel said. Even if racial categories are eliminated, "you've still got the color" issue.
If no one identified by race, "a new form of racism would come about -- it would go by what the person looks like," said Chancellor Adams, 15, who identifies as a white "Elk Grovian."
Junior Kevin Valone -- who said he's three-quarters Caucasian and one-quarter Filipino -- reflected the dilemma facing the class's many mixed-race students. "Race is part of your uniqueness and individuality," said Kevin, 17, who's also Italian and Japanese. "Most of the time for tests I put Filipino to identify with a minority. For unimportant surveys, I put biracial or mixed."
Senior Candice Renkin, 17, who identifies herself as white-European American, said it's important to close the achievement gap. "By ignoring racial categories, it makes the problem worse because people can be racist and there's no way to quantify it."
A dozen classmates said they'd rather identify as "American" on tests.
"Usually I bubble in 'Mexican,' but I don't speak Spanish, so I feel weird about identifying as Mexican," said Angellinda Gonzalez, 15. "But I'm still proud of my culture."
Kirchofer, the teacher, said that as one in three babies born in Sacramento are multiracial, more students "are grappling with this ... there are always questions like 'what do I fill in? What if I'm two?' "
Last year, when the school staged "heritage rallies" to pump up students of different races for state achievement tests, "there was some resentment," Kirchofer said. "Some would ask, 'Where do I go?' "