The Chinle Unified School District in Chinle, Ariz. serves a sprawling, 4,200 square mile area of the Navajo Nation. It encompasses the stunning cliff walls of the Canyon de Chelly National Monument as well as arid stretches of dusty, unpaved roads where some Native American families live without running water or electricity. Schoolbuses elsewhere last as long as 15 years in normal use; Chinle has to replace its buses every eight to 10 years because of the rough terrain and long distances they travel.
The far-flung nature of the district meant that when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, Superintendent Quincy Natay already had a challenging job leading a 3,600-student district where many students lack internet connections and live in poverty. Natay knew that job was about to get even more difficult.
“As of March last year we were forced to close our doors, and our only real option was to create paper [instructional] packets and send them out by schoolbus,” said Natay. “Leading into this school year, we knew the pandemic was not going away. I was concerned about learning loss and knew we had to come up with a reopening plan.”
The plan that Natay and the district crafted included acquiring enough laptops so every student could have one at home, purchasing 1,000 Wi-Fi hotspots from internet providers, and deploying buses throughout the district each day so each could be a distribution point for packets, Wi-Fi connections, and school lunches.
While many districts across the nation have implemented similar strategies, the need for stronger connectivity was especially critical for Chinle’s students. And it has required the district to think creatively to fill in gaps for those students for whom internet access continues to be a challenge.
“We decided that we’re going to be a 1-to-1 [student per laptop] going forward,” said Natay.
Not every family is able to use a Wi-Fi hotspot because cellular telephone service is spotty in many areas of the reservation. For those families, the district has been delivering flash drives loaded with recorded teacher lessons along with paper packets.
“We want those families to be able to see a teacher delivering a lesson,” Natay said.
‘Land for days and days’
Natay has been the superintendent since 2013. He is Navajo and grew up in Chinle, attending the district’s schools before embarking on a career with Chinle Unified. He served as assistant superintendent for finance for 22 years before taking the top job.
The superintendent’s own staff members as well as outside observers laud Natay as a soft-spoken but steady leader who has built on his roots in the community to promote high expectations for educators and students in the Chinle district.
“This is where he grew up, and in the Navajo way, you are really connected to the land,” said Janie Christie, the principal of Chinle Elementary School, who grew up with Natay and started working for the school district at the same time he did some 22 years ago.
“I have worked with a lot of superintendents,” Christie said. “Mr. Natay has really changed the tone and direction here. Our kids are about 99 percent Native American. He knows that the only way out of poverty for our kids and our community is through education.”
- Nitsahakees (Thinking-East) – Think Big About Where You Want to Go: Don’t be afraid to define a vision and set goals that others may see as unachievable. Great leaders help others to believe the possibilities in the big picture.
- Nahata (Planning-South) – Be a Motivated Motivator Who People Believe and Trust: Intentionally involve the people who will implement your strategic plan to conceptualize the plan. Powerful, transformative organizational change occurs during this discourse.
- Iina (Living-West) – Stay the Course: When the hard work of change begins, there will be resistance. It is critical to remain committed to your vision, goals, and strategy while living the plan.
- Sihasin (Reflecting-North) – Lead from a Solution-Based, Results-Focused Orientation: Refine strategy and insist on continuous improvement based on the evidence of committed implementation and achieving outcomes.
*Navajos believe in the concept of four: four seasons, four sacred mountains, four directions. Using this philosophy or way of life has influenced Natay’s leadership.
Patti Cruz of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, a Nashville, Tenn.-based organization that partners with schools, districts, and states on educational improvement, calls Natay “a phenomenal leader.”
“He is dedicated to equity of access to all things related to academics,” said Cruz, who is the director of NIET’s Scottsdale, Ariz., office. She has been working with Natay and others in the district over the last four years, driving five-and-a-half hours to Chinle to spend a week at a time there.
“It’s just land for days and days,” Cruz said about the Navajo reservation. “It’s sometimes hard for the kids to think about life beyond the Rez.”
Great expectations for college access and completion
Natay has sought to change that. As the longtime assistant superintendent, he was there as Chinle frequently cycled through superintendents, but he said he learned something from each of the 12 bosses he worked under.
“All of that allowed me to gain the insight of what it takes to be a good superintendent,” he said. “One thing I believe very strongly is that all of our kids are capable. We’re planting the seed that college is a possibility, and that life can be better.”
Of the district’s roughly 200 high school graduates per year, just about 20 percent go on to college. But even then, the college completion rate is low, as it is nationwide among Native Americans who enter college, Natay said. Still, Chinle Unified has sent students in recent years to Ivy League institutions including Harvard, Brown, and Columbia universities, and Dartmouth College, as well as to other selective universities across the country.
Those top students have all finished college, and their success can feel bittersweet at times. “Some of them even come back here, but not all,” Natay said. “There are better opportunities off the reservation.”
The major employers in the area are the tribal and Arizona governments and their subdivisions, as well as health-care facilities. Natay is the chairman of the Navajo Gaming Board, which operates four casinos and related facilities, all of which have remained closed during the pandemic. (The 27,000-square mile Navajo Nation is largely in Arizona but also extends into New Mexico and Utah.)
NIET has partnered with the Chinle district to develop school leadership teams, with teacher-leaders working with their colleagues to promote research-based teaching standards and run ongoing professional development at school campuses. Natay holds focus groups with teachers at every school each month to hear how they’re using the improvement tools.
“He involves all of his school leaders in the decision-making process,” Cruz said of the superintendent. “One thing that struck me that is very powerful is that when I am out there to work with his principals, he is right there. He wants to learn. He wants to walk the classrooms and get to know the kids.”
Chinle Unified and its seven schools have shown significant gains on state tests in recent years, though there is still plenty of room for improvement. The passing rate for English/language arts went from 9 percent in 2015 to 21 percent in 2018. In mathematics, it grew from 15 percent in 2015 to 29 percent in 2018.
“We went from being the worst-performing Navajo district to best-performing,” said Natay. “I had two schools on the verge of becoming A campuses on the state report cards.”
The superintendent attributes the academic gains to strategic planning that includes all stakeholders in the district, a preschool program that began five years ago, and a detailed curriculum that is consistent across all schools.
The NIET partnership has helped foster a professional learning community in which the stakeholders are constantly analyzing data and figuring out what is working and what isn’t, Natay said.
Christie’s Chinle Elementary campus was one of those schools that just missed the top grade on the school report card for 2018-19.
“This school was at a failing status not long ago, and now we’re one point away from an A,” the principal said.
There have been no state tests, and no state report cards, since the pandemic began. Native Americans, and the Navajo in particular, have been especially hard hit by COVID-19. Natay himself was ill with the coronavirus over the holiday break and has since recovered.
All of our kids are capable. We’re planting the seed that college is a possibility, and that life can be better.
Chinle Unified is doing its best to keep students learning whether it is through those paper packets, flash drives, or laptops connected to $35-per-month Wi-Fi hotspots.
Natay purchased 1,000 more Wi-Fi hotspots this semester, doubling the number it started with in the fall. Now, the district is delivering synchronous lessons to elementary students in the mornings and to high school students in the afternoon. Students access asynchronous modules for the remainder of their school days.
And the district’s hardworking buses, which in a normal school year travel more than 1 million miles, are out there every day. Many park near housing projects and provide another Wi-Fi option for students to access their remote lessons, Natay said.
Just as the internet access helps keep schools stay connected right now, Chinle under Natay’s leadership has sought to improve community through its facilities. The district operates an aquatic center that in normal times is open to the entire community, and the Chinle High basketball arena, known as the Wildcat Den, seats 6,000 fans. The district used state facilities funding and federal Impact Aid to finance these capital projects, as well as improvements to school buildings.
Viewers of an uplifting 2019 Netflix documentary series, “Basketball or Nothing,” got a look at Chinle High and some of the issues facing Native American youth. The six-part series focused on a deep run by Chinle High’s team into the Arizona state basketball tournament, but also featured the natural beauty of the Navajo reservation and the college aspirations of some of the students.
Natay played basketball growing up, though these days he is more likely to be found fishing in Lake Powell or in Colorado, said Christie.
“Most of the time it is catch and release, but they will keep some for a fish fry,” Christie said. Those escapes help Natay maintain his calm demeanor, the principal said.
“He was pretty quiet in high school, and he’s a soft-spoken person now,” she said. “He never raises his voice. But when he speaks, you know he means business.”
Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 17, 2021 edition of Education Week as Navajo Leader Fuels Progress By Connecting His Community