There are moments in life when we are privileged to meet an individual whose leadership is culture shaping and whose vision is bringing hope and change – rippling out to increasing levels of impact for us today, and for generations to come. For me, Quincy Natay is one of those rare leaders who makes me feel like I am watching the future find wings and take flight.
Prior to meeting Superintendent Natay, I knew him by his reputation. I had heard of the Chinle Unified School District superintendent’s extraordinary success bringing growth to his district in an area where poverty, a lack of resources, and a culture disconnected from the education system had previously stalled their progress. But the leadership lessons I am learning from Mr. Natay have far exceeded any expectations.
Last year, Quincy was a finalist for the School Connect Changemaker Award, which honors superintendents who have brought innovative solutions and built diverse leadership networks to create powerful change and growth in their district. Because of the timing and the distance he would have to travel, attending the awards required a 2-day commitment and an overnight stay. However, Superintendent Natay cares deeply about the ripple effect of his leadership, and he understands that what we celebrate we work harder to achieve. He traveled to receive the honors not just for himself, but for the children he serves. Natay then increased the ripple by returning to his district and awarding his students for high test scores with a coupon to purchase treats at school. The awarded coupons were met with cheers from the entire class. Since his district is high poverty (most schools are about 97% free and reduced lunch rate) this simple coupon meant opportunities for a reward that many of his students do not often, if ever, receive. In fact, when Quincy spoke at the School Connect Summit 2023 as a keynote, he shared about the challenges facing his students and the lengths some of them go to receive their education.
Located in the heart of the Navajo Nation in northeast Arizona, the Chinle Unified School District has 3,300 students in eight schools spread across 4,200 square miles. The student population is 99% Native American, and 40% of these students live in homes without running water or electricity. School buses travel over 6,000 miles a day to transport students to and from school safely. When the snow begins to melt, the dirt roads that buses must travel to reach students, turn into mud bogs that trap their vehicles and require special equipment to be released. Some children even walk long distances, or come by horse, just to pick up a meal and homework from the school bus. These challenges, taken together, felt overwhelming to the Chinle community. Generational poverty and historical trauma had left their mark and prior to the progress of Natay and his team, expectations for student achievement were low.
Superintendent Natay understood these challenges since he shares their history. Quincy grew up in poverty on the Navajo Reservation in Chinle and graduating from 8th grade was seen by many in his community as a complete education. But at school, Quincy had many of his core needs met and adults invested in his life. Two teachers made a huge difference to Quincy’s future: Mrs. Wake who taught him in kindergarten and 4th grade, and Pat Baner who talked him out of stopping his education in the 8th grade. These educators were people who believed in his potential and gave him not only a vision for the future, but a pathway for him to travel toward success. Rather than enlisting in the army, Quincy graduated from high school and headed to college. The experience gave Quincy the insight he needed and he came back to the district as the first Chinle High School graduate to become Superintendent. He now advocates that education is the means to end the cycle of poverty facing his people.
“We need to have that culture that says we are student first. New leaders may come and they will be held accountable that this is who we are.”
During his interview on the School Connect Podcast (Season 2, Episode 10), Superintendent Natay shared that in order to increase the value for education in his community, he needed to start by listening to their values and goals. He serves several chapter houses made up of smaller communities in his district. To increase the value for education in the community, he visited these chapters and listened to their goals. The Navajo people have a Diné way of life which follows the rising and setting of the sun. What Natay realized was that built into this way of life was strategic thinking to growth and achievement. It starts in the east with the sunrise as you contemplate the day. Next, it travels to the south as you plan the day, and then moves to the west as you live your day. Finally, by evening you reflect and ask the question, “Did I accomplish what I set out to do?” This final part of the evening also offers hope; there is always tomorrow. Quincy realized that the Diné philosophy fit perfectly with strategic planning. The contemplation, planning, living, and reflection process was already built into the Navajo way of life, but the community had not seen their children’s education system as a part of this. As Mr. Natay was able to make a cultural connection to education, the belief that educational success for students was possible and transformative began to catch on like wildfire!
Together with staff, parents and stake holders, the Chinle community began to see education as a ladder to climb out of poverty. They focused on key areas that have led to their success: a clear vision of their children flourishing, a strategic plan that they work from every day, a guaranteed and viable curriculum along with professional development for their educators. When Superintendent Natay began his tenure, Chinle was the worst performing Native American school district academically, but today they top that list and are chasing non-reservation schools. The district now has a results-oriented culture, common vision, growing student results and a unified board. Their vision is to turn each of CUSD’s seven schools into an “A” rated school.
Today, students at the Chinle Unified School District are earning incentives for their academic achievement and are beginning to see their future beyond simply working at a convenience store in town. They are working on STEAM programs including coding, robotics, flying drones and stop gap animation. They know that they must maintain high academic standards if they want to play sports, and they have strong Navajo role models in a majority of their teachers. Superintendent Natay is leading a team of passionate and strategic leaders who keep the welfare of students always at the center of their decision making. As a result, Chinle is now a shining example of what is possible even when the odds are incredibly challenging. Quincy Natay is an inspirational leader who was honored as Superintendent of the Year for Arizona in 2022. As his efforts build momentum, he reminds us that consistent, strategic effort always produces results!
Superintendent Natay, we celebrate the success of you and your community and look forward to learning from you in years to come!
Founder & CEO, School Connect