Embattled Cheltenham Elementary principal apologizes: “I still have a lot to learn”

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.

Kalpana Rao

Composite: screengrab from Cheltenham Elementary website, + photo via Padres Unidos. 


  1. “As the principal, I take full responsibility for a strong culture for our students, families and staff.”

    And how many staff have returned, from last year, to embrace this culture, Kaplana? How will the turnover help build your community relations?

    It won’t. Don’t let yourselves be marginalized by this woman, Cheltenham. Keep fighting the good fight, and raising the real issues

  2. “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.”

    First of all there is not one thing humble about you Kalpana Rao. You correct and insist parents call you DR., sure you have the degree but it did nothing to help you help anyone but yourself. You remind parents that you went to the best schools when they are hardly educated in your mind. You are rude, arrogant and have a false sense of confidence. So I am not sure if you can even ask with a straight face let alone humbly for anything. Believe me you will go back to your old ways and your manipulations and lies this year just like you live your life.

    You and DPS are lying about not sitting children on the floor as punishment. This has gone on since you have been there, it was not a one time thing and it was not because of space issues. The first time I walked into your school I invited a child who was sitting on the floor to sit on the couch and your secretaries BOTH told me the children could not sit on chairs because they were sent to the office for bad behavior.

    My question is, what happened to the DPS discipline matrix? No where on the DPS matrix does it ask for sitting children on the floor. It outlines how to proceed step by step in disciplinary issues. DPS is so sorry and YOUR practices will no longer happen. That is a true statement, these are YOUR practices of humiliation. They are the manifest of YOUR value of punishment and humiliation and the need to prove to everyone you are RIGHT rather than doing what is right. Every teacher at our school knows that this is a regular thing of yours. You humiliate children and anyone who gets in your way. Funny, there are people at every school you have been that have said the same thing.

    You say that “Cheltenham as a school where every child is growing and learning every day” If this is true why are we in red and have been since the day you walked in this building? Children are not learning and growing. Many of these children have had 2 years of ineffective instruction led by you. The research proves that when a child is exposed to 2 years of ineffective instruction they are not likely to ever overcome that. You are leading them like lambs to the slaughter with your ineffective leadership and abuse of teachers and children. So what you were shifted to the “Transformative” network…um a network created to serve someone else’s higher education goals. Rather than you and the people leading the this Transformative network playing around and giving yourselves “Transformer” cartoon names to sign your emails with, maybe you guys should get to work on helping kids and the community? How are you going to transform a school or anything when you cannot even transform yourself? You cannot reflect on the miserable person you are and how many people you have wronged.

    You are still failing everyday, what about that can you not see? Oh yes, the arrogance is what blinds you.

    You will be out by December citing personal reasons. DPS cannot afford to let the Parents of Cheltenham or Padres & Jovenes Unidos prove their case (which they have with pictures of children and emails that can be obtained by anyone with the Freedom of Information Act), because then that will give power to other parents at DPS schools where things like this are also happening and kids are not being served.

    So your days are counted Kalpana Rao. Onward parents of Cheltenham, keep up the GOOD fight!! Teachers at our school support you and are grateful for your support of us and that you are willing to use your voice for us when ours if silenced with fear of being retaliated against and or fired.

  3. ^^^^ Get emails ASAP, don’t wait on it. Put in CORA requests, document everything. DPS will delete anything incriminating as soon as they know about it, as they technically own the material and can do that.

    Speaking from experience

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