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Cheltenham Elementary principal, accused of racism, resigns after being cleared by district

The embattled principal of a northwest Denver elementary school — facing accusations of racial insensitivity, mistreating students and failing to reverse the school’s academic fortunes — resigned Friday, Denver Public Schools officials said.

A parent organizing group, Padres & Jovenes Unidos, had been pressing for the removal of Cheltenham Elementary School Principal Kalpana Rao, triggering a DPS investigation.

Susana Cordova, DPS’s chief of schools, said in an interview Friday the investigation had cleared Rao of the two accusations under review — that she had made a racist remark and had persisted in forcing students to eat meals on the floor at the predominantly Latino school after being told not to do so.

“She also believed it’s become clear that she is now a distraction and that it is taking away focus from where it needs to be — which is making sure our students and the school is well-prepared for the start of school,” Cordova said.

In a statement released Friday night by DPS, Rao described her resignation as “an extremely difficult decision.”

“I am, and always 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. “I have never wavered from that steadfast vision during the past two years at Cheltenham, leading the most difficult work of school turnaround.”

Shawna Foster, spokeswoman for Padres & Jovenes Unidos, said the resignation is testament to the power of organizing. Members of the group — clad in matching red T-shirts — took their concerns to the first DPS school board meeting of the new academic year Thursday.

“This is why we fight for educational rights in this school system,” Foster said. “It’s one thing for parents to feel alone, for children to feel discriminated against. It’s another thing to have 130 parents sign a petition saying they want the principal to be removed.” An earlier petition demanding Rao’s removal drew 300 signatures, she said.

Foster said it’s essential the group be involved in the process of hiring a new principal.

DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg recognized Rao’s service.

“She is a person of integrity who deeply cares about social justice and improving educational and life opportunities for our kids and families, especially those who most need those opportunities,” Boasberg said in a statement

Discontent over Rao’s leadership came to a head last spring after students facing discipline were sent to the principal’s office, where they ate lunch on trays while sitting on the floor — an image captured on a mobile phone camera and turned into an organizing tool.

In a letter to parents earlier this month, the principal apologized, saying it was not the school’s intent to humiliate students. Parents in the community, however, were reminded of an incident at the school more than 20 years ago in which Latino parents protested after their children were forced to eat on the cafeteria floor as punishment.

The group’s concerns go deeper, however, to the school’s persistent poor academic performance and high suspension rates. On 2014 TCAP state reading tests, 34 percent of Cheltenham third-graders scored proficient or advanced — compared to 60 percent meeting that mark in DPS as a whole and 71.5 percent statewide.

The roughly 500-student school is 90 percent minority, 41 percent of students are classified as English language learners and 99 percent qualify for government-subsidized lunches.

“Our trust has been broken in this process,” parent Marina Guerrero said Friday in a statement to the media. “We believe in our power to change things, but we have to ask why it took DPS so long to make these changes.”

DPS has tapped CJ Grace, a former principal and trainer with deep experience working with English language learners, as interim principal, Cordova said. She is now a director in the district’s English language acquisition department.

School begins at Cheltenham, which has been undergoing renovations, on Aug. 31.

“CJ is dedicated to ensuring all students receive a great education,” said Kurtis Indorf, executive director of Achievement Network – Colorado, a nonprofit that partners with schools. Indorf worked with Grace on a number of projects this year.

“CJ’s coming from a role where she led a lot of different pieces of work to provide equitable access for English language learners — which demonstrates her commitment to excellence and equity for all scholars,” Indorf said.