The Madison School District is considering whether to remove the word “Karen” from a section of its online student enrollment form where parents can identify their children’s ethnicity, apparently after some expressed concerns about its modern-day connotations.
But if it does, the district wouldn’t be able to collect information on more than 30 other ancestral groups, including Somali, Ecuadorian, Menominee and Nigerian.
“Karen” in the parlance of current American race relations has come to mean a demanding white woman blind to her own privilege and racism.
Think the woman who called police on a Black birdwatcher in New York City’s Central Park last year after he asked her to put her dog on a leash.
“Karen,” though, also refers to “a number of ethnic groups with Tibetan-Central Asian origins” who speak 12 related but distinct languages, according to the London-based human rights group Minority Rights Group International. The group estimates there are some 4 million Karen (pronounced “kuh-REN”), mostly in Myanmar. An estimated 215,000 live in the U.S.
The word appears on an online district enrollment page that asks parents to check a box for their student’s ethnicity. Check the “Asian” box and a drop-down menu appears with boxes for “Chinese,” “Filipino,” Karen” and five other Asian groups, along with “unknown,” “other” and “decline to indicate.”
Similar drop-down menus appear for “Hispanic or Latino,” “American Indian or Alaska Native” and “Black or African American” (but not “White” or “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander”).
A screen shot of the page showing the Asian options caused a small stir when someone posted it to Facebook on Tuesday.
“I tried working behind the scenes to remedy this,” wrote Angela Jenkins, a former Madison City Council candidate. “I checked today and it has not been resolved. This is not acceptable. Where is the quality check and more importantly, who approved this?”
Subsequent comments expressed surprise or asked for more context. But several also correctly noted that Karen is an ethnic group.
School Board member Nicki Vander Meulen also chimed in, saying she had been trying to get the matter fixed for days by having a memo sent explaining Karen is an ethnic group. She did not say to whom the memo would be sent.
Jenkins and Vander Meulen did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but in her comments on the post, Vander Meulen said the district was checking with the state Department of Public Instruction “to see if this group needs their own check box on our registration form as we would like to move them to ‘Other.’”
“This proposed change is due to the Karen label also being slang and a pejorative term for a White woman who is entitled or demanding beyond the scope of what is normal (or who use their privilege to demand their own way),” she wrote.
The post and subsequent chat had been deleted as of Thursday morning.
District spokesperson Tim LeMonds said Wednesday he was told “there were a ‘couple’ community members who provided feedback at it relates to the use of ‘Karen’ on our enrollment form.”
“Because of the modern-day use of Karen, we are checking to see if we need this on the check-box,” he said.
School districts are required under federal law to ask whether students are Hispanic or Latino and whether they are American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, or white.
But beginning this school year, DPI gave districts the option of letting parents more specifically identify their children under the Hispanic or Latino, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Black or African American categories.
Asking parents for their students’ ethnicity or ancestral origins allows districts “to collect more specific information for the purpose of targeting programs and supporting students from marginalized groups,” according to DPI spokesperson Chris Bucher.
But while the district can choose whether to ask parents for that more detailed information, it can’t choose to ask parents about some of the DPI-listed ethnic subgroups but not others, or remove some of the ethnic category subgroup identifiers, such as Puerto Rican or Hmong, from any of the ethnic group listings. Removing Karen, in other words, would necessitate removing Liberian, Salvadorian, Ho-Chunk and more.
School Spotlight: Adventures in learning, inside and outside the classroom
Each Monday, the Wisconsin State Journal features a story about learning in Wisconsin. You can find all the School Spotlight stories from 2021 here.
The trees and the vista just beyond the school forest could be preserved under current plans for the North Side subdivision
A field trip to a Wisconsin Dells water park was cut short when a thunderstorm rolled in, giving campers another water-themed lesson.
The camp at Madison Community Montessori School in Middleton was designed to pique students' interests and explore language, math and science.
Glitter became dragon scales, and dish soap was worm guts.
Harbor launched 12 weeks of summer camps that take advantage of the athletic club and also bring in educational elements, with themes such as summer Olympics, recycling and carnival.
Madison School & Community Recreation, Madison Parks and the Madison Reading Project are bringing free, accessible recreation to the city's neighborhoods through the Mobile Madison program.
Greathead showed up at an end-of-the-year party wearing a skirt decorated with rainbows her students drew with fabric markers.
Signs on the Eagle School trail identify species through the characteristics of leaves, fruit and bark, explain why leaves change color in the fall, and discuss oak savanna restoration.
The school began in a church basement in 2005.
Children learn a new language while engaging in hands-on activities such as arts and crafts, storytelling, music and movement and dance.
Marilyn Ruffin founded the Sun Prairie BEAM Awards to shine a light on the positive examples of Black excellence and achievement in the community.
A $13,000 grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation will help expose middle-schoolers to careers in manufacturing and technology.
The school celebrates the passage of seasons through art, music and story to strengthen a connection to the rhythms of nature.
“It’s really nice we get to go outside and do nice things for people,” said freshman James Bradley.
Keena Schroeder's cheesecakes have raise $1,000 for the Sun Prairie School District’s Hunger Hero Campaign to pay down outstanding balances for students' lunches.
“I have very few (curriculum areas) that teach reading, writing and critical thought better than hip-hop,” said social studies teacher Andy Hartman. “It lends itself to kids who typically don’t engage in schools.”
Once Monona Terrace was secured for rehearsal space, the “Percussion Extravaganza” concert was recorded, and it will be available online at 4 p.m. Saturday.
Drotzer's Polish bantam chicken earned her a grand champion award at the Jefferson County Fair, where her drake was a reserve champion.
The program combines academic and technical classroom instruction with mentored on-the-job learning.
Social workers in the Middleton-Cross Plains School District sprang into action to get essentials like toilet paper to families in need.
Edgewood Campus School teacher Kim VanBrocklin has been using brain-based learning initiatives in her teaching for nearly two decades.
“Daphne is a force to be reckoned with,” said Leah Williams, science teacher and adviser for the school's Green Team at Middleton High School.
Students were asked to grab a makeshift drum and play along or dance or do both as they watched an online video performance at home.
Olbrich's Rainforest Rhythms celebrates cultures from tropical and sub-tropical rainforest regions through dance and music.
The program serves disconnected, low-income young people ages 16 to 24 in Dane County and guides them toward self-sufficiency through mentoring, education and employment training.
A $1,115 grant from Friends of MSCR grant was used to buy winter clothing, such as snow pants and gloves, and play equipment, including sleds and tools to build igloos.
Sophia De Oliveira and brother Nickolas De Oliveira created Project Empower's Lung Model Kit to help children understand the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the Middleton High School hockey season was canceled because of COVID-19, team members built two rinks at Penni Klein Park.
In Kathy Nieber-Lathrop's “Gingko Finds Her Forever Home,” a girl who is adopted sets off on an adventure to find her Chinese tree an earthen home.