PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- The new school year is ushering in a new era for the Phoenix Union High School District with the purchase of their first electric school bus. South Mountain High School cross-country students are driving this change to benefit all Arizona families.

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"We would run a lot in the streets next to the cars and dirty air and one day I see it affect some of my runners and I thought as the captain, 'I want to do something to help them have a better future,'" said recent South Mountain graduate Monica Aceves.

That thought ignited a movement.

[WATCH: Arizona students start initiative for electric school buses]

The teens partnered with their coach and the environmental advocacy group Chispa (which is Spanish for "spark") to help drive the change.

"This wasn't about luxury or just something the kids wanted," said Coach Julio Zuniga. "This was about their health."

The Phoenix Union High School District has 67 buses. Half of them are diesel while the other half are propane. In 2017, the district passed a bond with the intent of replacing some of the aging fleet. South Mountain students made the bold request that those replacement buses be electric.

"We believe our students are deserving of us, as a district, to look at every option available to make sure we are providing clean and sustainable transportation services to our communities through our district," said Executive Director Juve Lopez.

But clean comes at a cost. An electric school bus cost about three times that of a traditional diesel bus.

However, an electric bus has a projected savings of $115,000 over its lifetime, saving approximately 80% on fuel and 80% on maintenance.

Phoenix Union High School District Governing Board member Stanford Prescott believes the investment is worthwhile for two reasons.

"One, any funding we save on fuel cost, maintenance cost or other costs, that's money we can put back in the classroom," said Prescott. "The second reason is, ultimately, it is our responsibility to be good stewards of the environment for our students."

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, school buses travel about 4 billion miles each year, driving 25 million children. And while the mode of transpiration may be safe, the diesel exhaust is not. The EPA says it especially impacts "children who have a faster breathing rate than adults and whose lungs are not yet fully developed."

According to the American Lung Association, Phoenix ranks 13th out of 217 cities across the United States for highest daily particle pollution and seventh out of 228 metropolitan areas for high ozone days.

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"We certainly see more pollution in urban areas, and we certainly see the incidence of respiratory disease is higher in urban areas, so we think there is a connection there," said Dr. Duane Wong with Arizona Allergy Associates. "You can feel it burn. It has a strong irritant effect. It is the equivalent of sticking your head in a bucket of chlorine. You might not be allergic to that chlorine, but it just burns your lungs; it just feels awful."

The bold step to purchase an electric school bus has South Mountain teens breathing a sigh of relief.

[SPECIAL SECTION: State of Our Schools: The search for solutions]

"It's great to know when I leave Phoenix Union, when I graduate, I will leave a legacy," said Levin Escarcega, a junior at South Mountain High School. "And if I look back and see in the future all these electric buses, I know it is because of my hard work, my teammates' and my coach's hard work."

Click here for more information about Chispa's Clean Buses for Healthy Niños campaign.


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