Parents complain Denver elementary school principal humiliates Latino students

Students disciplined at Cheltenham Elementary School have been forced to sit on the floor while eating lunch. Now, parents want Principal Kalpana Rao fired. Denver Public School administrators say, “No.”

Parents complain Denver elementary school principal humiliates Latino students

Guadalupe Arguelles first found out from another mom that her 8-year-old son Julio was forced to eat on the floor in school. When she asked him about it, he told her it was true. He was just too scared to bring it up.

“I was very upset when I found out,” she said.

For many parents, the idea of their kids eating off a tray on the floor merits a shrug at most. But for Arguelles and a group of other Latino parents at northwest Denver’s Cheltenham Elementary, the lunchtime ritual reminds them of what they see as a history of racism in Denver public schools.

Arguelles is a member of Padres Unidos, a group founded in 1992 by parents who organized to remove the principal of Valverde Elementary for forcing children who spoke Spanish at school to eat on the cafeteria floor. Padres Unidos successfully ousted that principal and continued to work toward racial justice in the district.

Twenty-three years later, Padres Unidos is organizing to remove a principal again. But this time, it’s not about speaking Spanish. Cheltenham principal Kalpana Rao and her staff make children eat on the floor as part of disciplining any run-of-the-mill misbehavior like a classroom outburst or a playground scuffle.

Parents say the practice is a form of public shaming. Because of the design of the office, any passersby can gawk at who’s on floor.

Veronica Dufner, organizing director of Padres Unidos, said students are scared to go to school.

“Humiliating kids… I don’t understand it,” she said. “If I see my child in that situation, I want to sit there instead.”

On the phone with The Colorado Independent, Denver Public Schools Chief of Schools Susana Cordova was adamant that the district would never sanction the intentional humiliation of students. She said that at Cheltenham, there’s just not other seating available in the principal’s office.

DPS spokeswoman Nancy Mitchell called the situation “unfortunate.”

According to Dufner, communication between families and their principal was strained before complaints about kids eating on the floor. The predominantly Latino group of parents found principal Rao — Ivy League educated and of Indian descent — to be condescending. Moms taking a Zumba class at the school were particularly offended when principal Rao burst in, telling them to turn off the music and “go back to their farms.”

Rao didn’t respond to The Colorado Independent’s requests for comments.

This spring, Padres Unidos arranged a formal meeting with Rao. That’s when her supervisor Jermall Wright got looped in.

Wright — the instructional superintendent for the district — said that was the first he became aware of parents’ concerns about kids eating on the floor. After the meeting, “I directed principal Rao, and we both just kind of like mutually agreed [eating on the floor] was not the correct way.”

Since then, kids waiting for discipline during lunchtime are allowed to sit and eat at a table in a nearby conference room.

Wright said the problem is solved. He knows so, he adds, because the conference room used to be his personal office during weekly visits to the school, so he had to relocate when it started filling with children during lunchtime.

But parents from the school say nothing changed. Laura Parra, mother of two at Cheltenham, said when parents went back to follow-up a few days after the meeting with Rao and Wright, a mom snapped this photo of children eating off trays on the principal’s office floor.

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Frustrated by the lack of results, Padres Unidos parents started a petition to remove Rao which they presented at a Denver School Board meeting in June.

“We feel like we were taken as a joke,” Parra told the board.

She and four other parents spoke about the disrespect they’ve experienced at Cheltenham. About 50 parents and children donning Padres & Jóvenes Unidos t-shirts filed into the back of the board room, turning the audience into a sea of red.

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Last to speak was Marina Guerrero, mother of three at Cheltenham.

“The principal has broken every type of bond with parents and teachers,” she told the board. “It’s time to stop discriminating against us like we’re second class citizens because of our color.”

Guerrero delivered a petition to remove principal Rao. It was signed by upwards of 130 parents representing 210 students in the school.

But the principal’s hiring and firing isn’t up to the board. It’s up to a small group of district administrators who already made up their minds.

“[Principal Rao] will be the principal who opens the school for the upcoming school year,” Wright said. He declined to share when that decision was reached or whether it was made before the petition to oust Rao was submitted.

Chief of Schools Cordova was one of the administrators involved in the decision. She said humiliating children was never sanctioned by the district and won’t continue.

“We believe deeply in restorative as opposed to punitive justice, especially for young children.”

Cordova doesn’t know why such an easy to solve problem escalated this far. “Could the kids wait in the cafeteria under supervision? Could a table and chair have been brought in?” she asked. “I think in hindsight we could think to handle it.”

Padres Unidos met with district administrators again this week, but it didn’t exactly go well for them. Cordova said she didn’t have definitive answers for them, so parents walked out of the meeting.

“We didn’t come here to waste time,” Marina Guerrero said afterward. “They know what is going on in our school and even then they are not listening to us.”

Cordova is currently on vacation and couldn’t be reached for comment.

This is video from the final moments before parents walked out.

Dufner is skeptical the district will ever address their concerns head on. “The only thing they want to do is keep the parents quiet. This is the game they play.”

She noted that relationships with parents elsewhere in the district aren’t nearly as antagonistic. “And there’s something to ask ourselves, right? Is this happening in the white neighborhoods?”

The implication that white parents get treated better in DPS is backed only anecdotally. Still, statistics cited by the group suggest students of color are disciplined more often and more harshly than their white peers in Denver schools.

According to a Padres Unidos report based on data supplied by DPS, Cheltenham doled out more punitive discipline, suspensions, expulsions and referrals to law enforcement during the 2013-2014 school year than most schools in the district, where the practices declined overall.

Because Cheltenham has 94 percent students of color compared to 78 percent in the district overall, it’s listed as a top contributor to the racial disparity in punishment in Denver schools.

District-wide, students of color are more than twice as likely to be suspended, expelled or referred to law enforcement than white students, according to the report. That ranks Denver as the district with the fourth highest racial disparity rate for discipline in the state.

Humiliation, like the kind going on at Cheltenham, is harder to quantify than punitive discipline.

Susan Jurow, a professor of Educational Psychology and Learning Sciences at CU Boulder, said that the “physical organization of a classroom — the way you set it up — establishes the relationships that will develop.

“So when you come in and get put on the floor, what does that symbolize?” she asked.

When working with educators, Jurow stresses the importance of respectful and private discipline — never shaming children in front of the whole classroom to make an example of what happens to troublemakers.

“Getting told you’re not of value, you will take that on as part of your identity,” she said. “And that’s when you start to check out, disengage.”

Other statistics stack against Cheltenham students. The school has a high poverty rate; 98 percent of students qualified for free or reduced lunches in that same year. It also has low test scores, ranking in the first percentile in the state in 2013.

The situation isn’t helped by the fact that the school has gone through three principals in the last five years.

A Chalkbeat investigation last year found that “turnaround” schools like Cheltenham play a near constant game of musical chairs with principals. The principal turnover rate at turnaround schools is higher than the district average, which is already low (just under five years for elementary schools, around three for middle schools and less than three years for high schools.) DPS’s uneven “principal churn fits into the national trend of principals in high poverty schools turning over more frequently than their counterparts in affluent schools.

So, tensions at Cheltenham aren’t exactly surprising, Wright said in defense of Rao and the district’s attempts to improve things at the school. “It often sometimes can be a rocky start when you’re coming into a turnaround school trying to make the necessary changes.”

But Arguelles said her son Julio can’t sit around waiting for his school to turn around.

“We won’t stop until our children feel safe and secure at the school with people who really care.”


Photos via Padres & Jóvenes Unidos. 

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About the Author

Nat Stein

Nat Stein is a Denver-based reporter. Check out her other work at Cipher magazine, KRCC public radio, Jacobin magazine and In These Times.


  1. Will Morrison on said:

    This country has gone straight to hell over the last 40 years, thank you Ronald Reagan and the right. We are at a point where every mean spirited JERK who wants to abuse people gets the job, it doesn’t matter whether it’s kids or not. The sociopaths are running the country, and this is what we get as a result. The citizens get the shaft, and authoritarian sociopaths get raises and keep their jobs.

    I think it’s tim e for the voters of the district to remember this, when it’s time for voting for school board members. LOSE THESE SELF IMPORTANT AUTHORITARIAN SCUM and put people in who care about what YOU want and what is best for your kids.

    For the love of God, these are CHILDREN you’re treating like human waste, when it’s really the principal who IS. Time for this mean spiritred JERK to find a job where they can’t harm CHILDREN.

    This is totally unacceptable, on ALL levels.

  2. Maureen H Loyacono on said:

    I once lived in Denver and worked as a teacher with DPS. This story is shocking and disgusting. No reputable educator would use EATING circumstances as an activity for punishment to a child. Eating is an activity for the child to rest and get nutrition for learning experiences. Punishment if needed should not have anything to do with eating. In any case, the parent should have been notified that the child had broken a rule in some way and would receive punishment. A conference should have followed such a call and decisions made. This is a good example of lazy administration and a lacking of common sense by the teacher. Someone needs to feel the wrath of 900 Grant St.

  3. Anonymous on said:

    IN the article it did not mention the turnover rate of staff. I was employed at Cheltenham Elementary for 8 years. My last year is when Dr. Rao took over as principal. My resignation was due toher lack of understanding and compassion towards her staff. Most of the teachets employed this school year and last have been at Cheltenham less than 2 years. The main reason being it is very difficult working with Dr. Rao.

  4. Justin on said:

    I was at this board meeting, and the presentation was powerful- a community (<-note that word) was present, with unified feelings of frustration and anger. They want a better situation.

    The lack of adequate action is gut wrenching. Accountability is one of DPS' core values.

  5. Anonymous on said:

    Unfortunately, these claims are true. Kalpana Rao is a nightmare to work with and work for. She uses discriminatory and harassing tactics to not only intimidate staff, but also parents and children. She talks down to parents and humiliates them by constantly reminding them that they are not educated or as educated as she is. She brings children into her office to interrogate them as to why they share what happens at school with their parents. This is a woman who is very insecure and enormous hubris. This year two third grade teachers left the school within working with her within 2 months. One was asked to lie say she was having medical issues and that was the reason for her departure. The other was continuously harassed by Kalpana to the point of Kalpana breaking the law and requesting sensitive personal medical information about a teacher. I wish someone would FOIA the emails all. She directly violated HIPPA laws that are to protect people from people like Kalpana Rao who engages in discriminatory practices. After that, Kalpana withheld a letter of recommendation from the teacher until she complied with her demands of lying to parents and staff and citing personal reasons for leaving. Kalpana is all about the cover up and her superiors are as well. I personally saw the resignation email and her boss (Jermal Wright) and his boss (Ivan Duran) were copied on it. Everyone knows what this nightmare of a woman is capable of and is doing and no one wants to do anything about it. I work at Cheltenham and I am embarrassed that these things are happening. It is so bad that our English Language Development instructional coach is allowed to go around calling parents “fucktards” and Kalpana not batting an eyelash to it. A third grade teacher who came back from maternity leave was never given time or coverage when she needed to pump to feed her newborn. Kalpana needs to be fired or needs to realize that she is embarrassing Denver Public Schools as well as the teachers at Cheltenham. We take our profession seriously and are tired of being treated this way, but most importantly watching her treat parents and students this way. Your forget Kalpana, those parents and children are who you work for! I am scared to go back to work this fall, but I need my job and Kalpana makes reference checks very difficult mostly when she is experiencing a mass exodus.

  6. Anonymous on said:

    I worked with Rao at Trevista, and it sounds like the first commenter knows her (Will Morrison). She’s a sociopath, if you get out the checklist, she might even qualify as a psychopath. But that makes her a great liar and manipulator, and nothing sticks to her. Not even really damning feedback surveys and high turnover rates – she just spins it like she’s eliminating the weaker staff through voluntary attrition (and backs it up with the poor evaluation scores that, oh wait, she’s the one doing those scores, too, so don’t rock the boat!) Kids were scared of her at Trevista, too, not to mention staff. I’ve worked for tough administrators before (and given them great reviews), and this isn’t the same – Rao’s not tough. She’s a bully. Shame on DPS for keeping her in positions of power.

  7. Frustrated Teacher in DPS on said:

    The only person I blame here is Ivan Duran the Asst. Superintendent for Elementary Education. He was in charge of Franziska Zenhausern when she was ousted by parents from Valverde Elementary earlier this year and now he is in charge of Kalpana Rao. I was present at a parent’s meeting at Valverde when Duran openly said, “I am not here to support you (the parents), I am here to support the principal.” This is not his first rodeo with leaders who discriminate and humiliate their communities. Unfortunately this only happens in our Title 1 school neighborhoods. In our white affluent schools, the Instructional Superintendent sets up a desk in the school and talks with parents and staff and changes are made immediately. DPS and Tom Boasberg doesn’t care about people of color or people who are not affluent.

  8. Anonymous on said:

    This is happening in many DPS schools. Principals, completely supported by the the district, who are bullying their staff, forcing bad evaluations downs their throats, humiliating the kids, and simply don’t have the expertise to run a school. What is DPS doing here?????

  9. Anonymous on said:

    I, too, have previously worked with Dr. Rao at a K-8 school in Denver Public Schools. From the get go she was demeaning, prejudice and accusatory of her staff and students.

    I was accused of lying about simple issues and in depth issues constantly. I was screamed at with fingers 2 inches from my face for asking for a personal day. I was harassed and humiliated publicly until the very last hour of school that year.

    While I appreciate the Colorado Independent for bringing to light this issue, it needs to go more mainstream. Any school where Dr. Rao has a position of power, is not a school that I would work at or send my children. She gives educators a bad name and I am ashamed that she is able to continue to represent Denver Public Schools as a leader.

  10. Anonymous on said:

    I taught at Lake Middle School where Cheltenham feeds into for three years. While I do not have any experience working with this principal, I have plenty of knowledge of the churn and burn practice that DPS has for principals at “turn around schools.” Anyone taking this position is committing career suicide within DPS. That being said, the pressures of the District are no reason to take out your frustrations on staff an kids! That being said, I can not believe I survived teaching three years at a DPS TitleI school with a 95% free and reduced lunch population!!!! Kids would leave the classroom constantly, start fights in the classroom, and sell drugs in the bathroom. There was NO LEARNING going on in ANY classroom!!!!! I had one student stand at my door and repeatedly tell me to “fuck off” while I was trying to teach other students. My point being, I don’t know what the the solution is for discipling kids who (in my opinion) are not disciplined at home, have no appreciation for education and no accountability for their actions but I know DPS is scared shitless to discipline them due to stories like this! DPS is very aware of the disparity of discipline between whites versus non-white students, therefore there solution is no discipline. Soooooo, you are going to get the teacher that can handle being told to “fuck off” for about 6-9 months, then your going to get another teacher, then another. Parents need to look at their role and schools need to look at their part in raising and educating kids!

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