Denver public school Cheltenham Elementary principal Kalpana Rao held a last-minute Thursday press conference to apologize for not understanding parents’ concerns that their children were forced to eat on the floor of the dean’s office while awaiting discipline – a practice some parents call racist and humiliating.
Her conference came less than an hour before a long-scheduled press conference held by Padres & Jovenes Unidos in which the racial justice group demanded the Denver School Board fire Rao.
Both parents and the principal are bracing for results from a Denver Public Schools investigation into the allegations against her.
The principal, who is of Indian descent, delivered her remarks in English and Spanish. She discussed the struggles of students of color from low-income families and insisted that having students eat while sitting on floor was not a form of punishment.
“Our students deserve the best education,” she said.
They did eat on the floor of the office, she acknowledged, but only because there wasn’t enough seating to always accommodate every student sent for discipline. She would rather have kids eat while sitting on the floor than skip lunch.
“The policy had nothing to do with who was in the office,” Rao said about allegations that she targeted Latinos. “It was never a consequence to eat on the floor.”
But the parents who want her out don’t buy that. They see eating on the floor as a form of racist punishment and remember another Denver principal in the mid-1990s who would force kids to eat off the floor if they were overheard speaking Spanish in school. Padres Unidos originally formed to oust that principal.
Rao said she should have been more sensitive to the parents’ concerns and the cultural context. “I am sorry that I did not understand how my actions would be misinter– interpreted by our families,” she said.
Parents don’t think they’ve misinterpreted anything. They claim Rao has made racist comments over the past year. A group of moms taking a zumba class at school said that Rao told them to turn the music down by yelling, “Go back to your farms!”
At the press conference, Rao denied saying that.
Chief of Schools Susana Cordova said DPS is looking into the Zumba class incident and parents’ allegations that children ate on the floor even after Rao promised it would never happen again.
“When parents are uncomfortable about what’s going on, it’s important that we listen and take that seriously,” Cordova said of the investigation. “And anytime we have serious concerns like this we want to make sure we’re making decisions based on facts.”
Schools across Denver will open their doors Monday, but not Cheltenham. Ongoing construction pushed the start date back a week. Cordova assured reporters that the school will not be without a principal when it opens — no matter the outcome of this investigation.
“I want a school where all kids are disciplined fairly. Cheltenham isn’t that,” said mother Carmen Alvarez at the Padres Unidos press conference. “I want a school where high academics are the norm. Cheltenham isn’t that.”
Rao was brought in two years ago to turn around the failing school. At the press conference, parents complained that academic performance has worsened and discipline is on the rise.
Since 2012, Cheltenham students’ proficiency in reading and writing dipped, but improved in math. Roughly two-in-three students are failing every subject. And district data compiled by Padres Unidos shows that suspension rates have jumped significantly in that same time period.
“And it isn’t the fault of the teachers at Cheltenham or the parents or the kids,” Alvarez said. “It’s the leadership’s fault. Why didn’t DPS do something when they noticed the turnaround school wasn’t turning around?”
Pam Shamburg of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association announced the union’s support for parents who are trying to remove Rao. Teachers feel intimidated and devalued at Cheltenham, she said. So much so that “there’s been an exodus of teachers from that building.”
For all the hearsay about Cheltenham’s high teacher turnover rate, specific numbers from the 2014-2015 school year are not yet available.
Teachers who leave a hostile work environment don’t speak up for fear of retribution, Shamburg said.
“DPS spends a great deal of press and money to espouse the values of integrity, accountability, equity, collaboration and students first,” Shamburg said. “It’s time for the district to live those values and pay attention to the people who understand kids the most — their parents and teachers.”
“Did you forget about us?” mother Laura Parra asked board members at the Thursday night board meeting. “I’m asking if you forgot, because in June, we were here at this DPS board meeting with signatures asking you to remove the principal and change Cheltenham for the better. But maybe you bumped your heads and forgot, because you have not started the process of finding a new principal as we demanded.
“You say you’re conducting an investigation into the principal, but did you forget to call our parents who were told by principal Rao to ‘go back to the farm?’” she asked. “They weren’t called, but they remember. They aren’t going to forget.”
Jennifer Seal, another Cheltenham mother, charged the board with sticking up for a principal whose leadership failed to improve academics at the school that consistently ranks in the lowest 10 percent in the state.
“Not only are you protecting racist behavior, but you are protecting incompetent behavior,” Seal told the board members.
“Give me a principal I can be proud to support. Give me a school district I’m proud to be part of,” Seal demanded – but with a caveat: “Don’t give me a charter.”
The future of Cheltenham is the subject of much rumor and speculation.
Parents say they will not be satisfied until the principal is gone.
Rao said, “I’m really excited about the school year that’s about to start. It will be the best one yet.”
Photos by Nat Stein and Kyle Harris
Additional reporting by Kyle Harris.