Principal Kalpana Rao of Cheltenham Elementary in west Denver wrote a letter to the community on Friday in response to the ongoing efforts by some parents to have the district remove her from the school. It’s her first public statement about the situation that’s been steadily escalating since spring.
As The Colorado Independent reported last month, Latino parents at the school were outraged when they discovered Rao made students eat on the floor while they awaited discipline.
For these parents, the practice harkened back to a time in the 1990s when a local principal punished kids for speaking Spanish in school by forcing them to eat off the cafeteria floor. Padres & Jovenes Unidos was formed to oust that principal and continues to organize around racial disparity in Denver Public Schools.
The organization is behind this current effort to oust Rao.
District officials maintain that students eating on the floor of the principal’s office was never intended as humiliation or punishment — there just weren’t enough seats. And since a meeting between Rao, her supervisor Jermall Wright and parents this spring, the school remedied the situation by opening up a conference room for kids awaiting discipline to sit in during lunch.
But Padres Unidos organizers don’t believe the problem has been solved. After they were promised the practice had stopped, a mom saw a child eating on the floor once again. Parents started a petition for the district to fire Rao, which they presented to the Denver School Board in June.
The district decided to keep Rao for the upcoming school year and held a meeting with Padres Unidos to hear the organization’s concerns. Parents walked out.
The letter below was posted to the school’s website and Facebook page and sent out to every parent.
Dear Cheltenham families,
I became an educator because I believe all children deserve to learn at high levels so they are prepared for college and career. It is my unwavering belief that our students are capable of reaching high academic standards, and that it is our job as educators to support them emotionally, physically and mentally to meet those standards.
I chose to lead at Cheltenham because of the children – their resilience, their diversity, their bilingualism and their incredible potential. This work matters to me because I care deeply for the emotional and intellectual well-being of all students. I hold my staff and myself to high expectations so we can ensure your children’s success.
I want to sincerely apologize for anything that has led us to the position we find ourselves in today. As the principal, I take full responsibility for a strong culture for our students, families and staff. I humbly ask that we move forward together in support of our vision of Cheltenham as a school where every child is growing and learning every day. I want to emphasize that I recognize and respect the vital role you play in the success of our school.
In the spring, I heard very clearly parent concerns about some children who have eaten lunch on the floor in the main office. I understand the painful history of another instance, 23 years ago, when Latino parents protested after their children were forced to eat lunch on the cafeteria floor as punishment. This was wrong then and it is wrong now. It is not our school’s intention to humiliate any student in any way. This would run contrary to my deep values, beliefs and respect for the kids at Cheltenham. Children who were sent to the office during the lunch hour for behavior issues would go to the cafeteria to get their lunches on trays, which they brought back to the office so they could eat while they waited for the dean of students. There are few places to sit and some children did end up eating lunch from their trays while seated on the floor. This has stopped and will not be repeated. I apologize again that this was allowed to happen at our school.
During my own personal schooling experience, I was one of the few people of color in my own schools while growing up in Wisconsin. Every day, I had to adopt one culture during school and live another one at home, where our food, customs and beliefs were different. I want our students of color to feel more connected, so they feel their school knows and values them and their cultures. Even though I am fluent in Spanish, I know that I still have a lot to learn about the culture, and I will continue to work to build better relationships with all of our families. I am eager to do so and I look forward to forging stronger connections this coming school year.
I appreciate the progress we’ve made together over the past two years and I care very deeply about the students and families. I look forward to working with you as parents and community members again this fall.
Composite: screengrab from Cheltenham Elementary website, + photo via Padres Unidos.