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Shondiin Silversmith
Arizona Mirror

The largest school district on the Navajo Nation, both in student count and geographic area, is set to receive a $2 million state grant to address transportation needs.

The Chinle Unified School District operates seven public schools that serve more than 3,000 students. The district encompasses eight communities — Chinle, Many Farms, Tsaile, Luckachukai, Wheatfields, Nazlini, Cottonwood, and Tselani — which are spread out across 4,200 square miles. The school buses travel more than 6,000 miles each day, according to the district’s website.

The Chinle Unified School District’s current student transportation capabilities leave 833 students without a seat on the bus, according to the A for Arizona’s awardee snapshot report, and it does very little to address the needs of families outside the bus route areas.

“Technology-related upgrades and bus replacements are needed throughout their fleet to improve student safety and reliable transportation to and from school,” the report says. Due to unimproved road conditions within their district, buses and students are sometimes stranded due to the muddy conditions along bus routes.

As part of their application to A for Arizona’s grant program, Chinle Unified School District proposed a direct-to-parent transportation stipend that will benefit the district’s long-distance travelers, according to the report. The district also plans on getting vehicles that were inoperable due to road conditions back in service.

The proposal also included a recruitment and retention program for transportation staff as well as converting some of their current fleets into modern electric vehicles that will save them hundreds of thousands in gas and maintenance costs, the report says.

“The effectiveness of this well-thought-out suite of options to improve the complicated transportation needs of this vast district will be measured through a series of metrics,” the report says.

A few of the desired outcomes from these changes include an increase of student attendance, as well as reduced time in transit, which includes the average time in transit for students residing 30 miles or further from their school.

The Chinle Unified School District was one of 24 proposals awarded as part of the Arizona Transportation Modernization Grant Program, which is a $20 million initiative to improve K-12 transportation opportunities and improve access to reliable and safe transportation for students, a press release from A for Arizona states.

The grant program is run through the A for Arizona Expansion & Innovation Fund and was established in the Arizona legislature’s 2022 fiscal year budget. A for Arizona is an nonpforit organization dedicated to K-12 education issues.

“Arizona has a system of public school options envied across the country, but transportation barriers to these quality schools are a reality for far too many Arizona families,” Gov. Doug Ducey said in the press release. “Arizona kids deserve access to a classroom that meets their needs, and the Arizona Transportation Modernization Grants Program is providing new ways to make this a reality. These solutions will strengthen opportunities for K-12 kids and their families in rural communities and all areas of the state.”

The grant applications were processed by a vetting committee, which awarded more than $18 million in grants for 24 projects across Arizona.

Grant awardees will deliver a wide range of solutions to tackle problems identified at the local level, the press release states, and this includes providing funding directly to families in need of help with transportation costs.

“The Arizona Transportation Modernization Grants will accelerate the pace at which the Grand Canyon State can move past an antiquated education transportation system and respond to the student-focused needs of the 21st century,” said Emily Anne Gullickson, Founder and CEO of A for Arizona. “It is evident by the competitive cycle and number of high-quality proposals that school leaders, entrepreneurs, and community partners have forward-thinking and innovative solutions ready to address our K-12 transportation needs.

“This first round of awardees will serve as a catalyst to tearing down long-standing access barriers and inform playbooks on how others can deliver multiple transit options to better serve every K-12 student,” Gullickson added.

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This story was originally published on the Arizona Mirror.