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.
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.
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.
El video en Español: no cree en padres o maestros, entonces vámonos. pic.twitter.com/K39xA7qwkn
— Padres&JovenesUnidos (@PadresyJovenes) July 15, 2015
El video en Español parte 2: pic.twitter.com/QaAp64Bitu
— Padres&JovenesUnidos (@PadresyJovenes) July 15, 2015
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.