DPS looks toward Cheltenham Elementary’s future after clearing resigned principal of wrongdoing.

Friday, Cheltenham Elementary School principal Kalpana Rao resigned after a months-long tangle with parents who accused her of forcing children to eat on the floor, making racist remarks and failing to improve academics at the chronically under-achieving school.

She has denied many of those claims from the get-go. But when new allegations surfaced and pressure mounted over the summer, Rao started to publicly own the soured situation. Earlier this month, she wrote an apology letter to the community, then held a press conference last Thursday to reach a wider audience.

Rao announced her resignation the next day. It was an “extremely difficult” decision, she said. “I am, and have been, incredibly committed to the idea that all children deserve access to educational opportunities that enrich their lives and make their dreams a reality,” she said in a release. “I have made mistakes in my time at Cheltenham, but I have never wavered from that steadfast vision.”

In the end, the mistakes proved tough to bounce back from. “It has become increasingly clear that my presence at Cheltenham is distracting from what should always be the primary focus – our fantastic kids.”

The Denver Public School district has cleared Rao of all wrongdoing.

In an interview with The Colorado Independent Friday, Chief of Schools Susana Cordova said the district conducted an investigation this summer into two specific allegations — that children continued to eat on the floor after Rao promised it would stop and that Rao made a racist remark to several parents. Both proved to be untrue, Cordova said.

Despite the existence of a photo purportedly showing a boy eating on the floor when the practice should have ended, Cordova said interviews with office staff indicate that the practice did indeed end when Rao said it would.

The other charge stems from a story parents organized by Padres & Jovenes Unidos told — that Rao once interrupted a Zumba class at the school and told the Latina mothers in attendance to “go back to the farm.”

On Thursday, those parents said DPS never reached out to ask them what happened.

Friday, Cordova said that after repeated attempts to get in touch, the district was finally able to connect with them. And just like the Zumba instructor and cafeteria staff members the district also interviewed, these parents gave no evidence to support the claim, Cordova said .

“When asked point-blank if Rao ever said those words, they said no.”

DPS has tapped C.J. Grace as the interim principal who will be there to open school next week. She currently works in the district’s English language acquisition department.

But Cordova said the district will seek a more permanent replacement for the school that has had three different principals in the last five years. “It’s really important that parents, teachers and students all have a say in the characteristics of their new principal,” she said.

The hiring process can take time because it’s so important to get right, Cordova said. “There will be plenty of opportunity for extended community involvement.” She offered no specific deadline for when a final candidate will be selected.

When Padres & Jovenes Unidos gathered after news of Rao’s resignation on Friday, mother Carmen Alvarez told the press that parents aren’t waiting for an invitation to join the hiring process — they demand it. “There is already a history of Denver Public Schools putting a bad principal in a failing school,” she said. “We cannot trust that their process will be open and transparent.”

She stressed that parents forced change at Cheltenham, not the district. “Today we have won an important victory, but one that is ours alone,” she said. “Our persistence has paid off. Now we can look forward to changing this school.”

Marina Guerrero celebrated the group’s victory, but criticized the district for only taking action once media attention ramped up. She said Latino families get systematically ignored and dismissed in DPS.

“Cheltenham is but one failing school in a sea of failing schools,” she said. “DPS doesn’t have a problem educating white children, but it consistently fails Latino children.”

Despite all the frustration, Guerrero said Padres Unidos will emerge emboldened. “Our kids are just as good as any other kids. We, as parents, are the most dedicated parents because we have to fight people like Principal Rao all the time to make sure our kids get a fair education.”

On her part, Cordova agreed that turning around a failing school is hard work. With pressure to improve as quickly as possible comes risk, she explained. “How do we work with high urgency but in a way where everyone is growing and it’s sustainable?” she asked, articulating the balance the district tries to strike in cases like Cheltenham.

“We need to grapple with the urgency around a very real equity issue,” Cordova said, “but not make the atmosphere drudgery. It’s some of the hardest work we do.”

She emphasized efforts the district has made to encourage cultural sensitivity while also intensifying academics — the two things Cheltenham parents are asking for.

Last year, Cheltenham started participating in the School Culture Academy, which coaches school staff on how to foster a positive and productive culture for students.

Cordova also pointed to DPS’s Personal Success Factors as another step the district is already taking to address inequity. That program gives students personalized support to figure out the skills and disposition they need to be successful.

The goal, Cordova said, is to “turn kids into happy, productive, well-adjusted adults.”

Cheltenham’s new year starts August 31.

Photo credit: Chris Metcalf, Creative Commons, Flickr.