When Nathel Burtley led the Flint Community Schools in Michigan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, students would call him at home to find out whether he would cancel school for snow. Parents called to talk about whatever was on their minds.
“He would literally tell people, ‘I’m the only Burtley in the book,’” Burtley’s son, Christopher Burtley, said.
That accessibility to students, educators, and community members ran through the course of Burtley’s life and career.
Burtley, who in 1988 became the first African American to lead the Flint school system, died earlier this month from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, one more among dozens of educators nationwide who have succumbed to the disease in recent weeks. He was 79 and would have celebrated his 80th birthday this past Sunday.
“They used the word approachable all the time,” Burtley’s wife, Kathy Burtley, a lifelong Flint resident and a former special education teacher in the district, said in describing her husband.
“The community loved my husband, and my husband loved the Flint Community Schools,” she said. “He made it where everybody could work together, where everybody felt comfortable going to one another, and asking questions, and making things work. It was truly a family when he was there.”
Christopher Burtley said his father becoming the system’s first black superintendent in 1988 was “very symbolically important.”
“It was also very substantively important,” he said. “It was rare in the county at that time – it still is, quite honestly. He took it very seriously. He didn’t want to mess up. That was his identity. People treated him like that. They saw him as a leader, someone they could identify with in a role that they thought was significant.”
Devoted to Flint
When the elder Burtley came to Flint in 1981, as a deputy superintendent under then-superintendent Joseph Pollack, Flint was still an industrial powerhouse, largely because of General Motors. The district was seen as a model for the community schools movement—where schools were not just places where students were educated during the school day, but where they stayed open for after-school programs and where parents took adult education classes in the evenings. The schools and the community were intertwined.
When Pollack left to run another school system and Burtley became superintendent, it was a significant step for a district with rapidly changing student demographics. But as a key part of Pollack’s leadership team, the community knew Burtley and were used to seeing him in a leadership role.
“He wasn’t someone who was dropped into an organization and had to learn from the ground up,” Christopher Burtley said. “People wanted him to be successful.”
Flint was not the first superintendent job that Burtley was offered. He turned down other offers because he felt that the right supports had to be in place, the younger Burtley said. He found that in Flint.
James E. Ray, who worked with Burtley in Flint and then succeeded him as superintendent, said Burtley was a model for administrators like him who did not often see African Americans in those positions.
“At the central office level, Nat provided an array of hope that people like myself and others could aspire to be leaders in school districts period, not just urban centers,” Ray said.
Burtley’s tenure coincided with monumental shifts in the state and city. The population dropped as residents moved to the suburbs and jobs at General Motors declined. School buildings had to be closed because of smaller enrollments and budgetary constraints.
Burtley relied on his communication skills to convey those challenges to administrators, parents, and the community, Ray said. He went to churches, parent meetings, community gatherings, and schools and spent time with local leaders to explain decisions, Ray said.
Burtley was guided by the mantra “what’s best for students,” and filtered every decision through that lens, Ray said. “That was his metric—whether or not he thought it was in the best interest of students.”
And he sought to include parents as part of the process.
“It wasn’t necessarily that teachers knew what was best for every young person,” Ray said. “Parents had to be an integral role in their own child’s education. He spent a lot of time trying to communicate and help parents understand what their increased role would be. Making sure their voices were heard was important to Nat.”
It Was Never Too Late
Christopher Burtley said his father’s core belief was that every child could succeed.
“It didn’t matter how poor you were,” Christopher Burtley said. “It didn’t matter if you were in trouble. It didn’t matter where your family came from. He truly felt that every student that walked through that door, that they should have a chance.”
That view was largely based on his own experience as the son of a single mother who relied on government assistance and the help of others to raise her children.
And he believed that the investment should not just be in children, but adults as well, Christopher Burtley said.
“That goes through all of life, whether it’s adult ed, whether it’s alternative ed, he viewed it’s never too late, and we can never stop engaging with people no matter where they are in society,” his son said. “You have to invest in people, you have to engage with people, you have to mentor people, and the impact you can have is huge.”
In an op-ed published in a local paper shortly after he became superintendent, Burtley prepared the community for the tough rough ahead: union negotiations, financial challenges, school closings. But he also laid out his vision for the district and parents and community.
“My vision for this school system is to be able to give every youngster the encouragement to go out and become all that he or she can be,” he wrote.
Ray said that Burtley was guided by equity and ensured that special education programs received targeted funds and that schools were funded equitably regardless of where they were located.
While Flint schools struggled academically, Burtley believed in investing in teachers. He brought leading research to the district. He also partnered with researchers at Michigan State University to set up a learning lab in the district that allowed the university’s professors to spend time in the district’s schools to help teachers improve practice while Flint’s teachers co-taught classes at Michigan State University.
When Burtley was ready to retire, he convinced Ray to leave Indianapolis, where Ray had relocated for a deputy superintendent job. He wanted him back in Flint and went to bat for him, Ray said, but not just to follow his course.
“He did not want me to just do everything he did, but to decide what’s working, build on those things, but also look to bring in strategies and resources that would help grow and build and sustain the district going forward,” Ray said.
“Dr. Burtley was a kind man with a big heart,” said Ray. “He was an advocate for those, who, in many cases, were voiceless.
“I would call him a moral exemplar of this work. I learned so much from him. We’re all going to miss him.”
While Burtley was proud of his professional accomplishments, the younger Burtley said he thinks his father would list his biggest accomplishment was his role as a father.
Recruited Black Teachers
Nathel Burtley was born in Cairo, Ill., the fourth of six children. The town was segregated, so he attended the black high school, Sumter High School, where he sang in the choir and played football.
His high school English teacher steered him toward college. He attended Southern Illinois University—the first time he was in class with white students—where he got a degree in speech pathology. (He stuttered as a child.) Federal aid, scholarships, other financial assistance, as well as money from his job as a janitor, helped pay for his undergraduate education.
He also earned a doctorate in educational administration and urban education from Michigan State University, according to his family.
He worked as a speech pathologist in the Grand Rapids, Mich., school district, where he rose to become a principal and district administrator before moving to Ypsilanti, Mich.
John Matthews, a former assistant superintendent for personnel in Grand Rapids, who worked with Burtley in the 1960s, said Burtley was instrumental in helping him recruit minority teachers after the district was ordered to desegregate.
The two took road trips to historically black colleges and universities, like Morehouse College and Spelman College in Atlanta and Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., to recruit black teachers to work in Grand Rapids.
“He was extremely sharp academically,” Matthews said. “He had a lot of charisma. Students just gravitated to him as an elementary principal. People just loved him.”
After retiring from Flint, Burtley worked as an athletic director for Michigan State and for The Leona Group, which manages K-12 schools in several states.
An Educator to the End
Retirement didn’t suit Burtley, and he got bored, Christopher Burtley said.
“Retirement sounds good until you realize you still have the energy, you still have the bug, you’re used to being on the go, people are still calling you,” Christopher Burtley said. “When you commit that much of your life to something you can never totally step away. A lot of people can’t.”
So, he took a job—his last one—as principal at Northridge Academy, a K-8 public charter school in Flint.
“People think it’s crazy for someone who was a superintendent, but that’s what he wanted—to be with kids,” his son said.
“He said, ‘I’d just go back and be a principal again. I want to see kids; I want to walk the hallways. My favorite job of all of my jobs was as an elementary school principal,’” added Christopher Burtley.
The family plans to hold a small burial this week and a memorial service in the future. They’re also planning to establish a scholarship in Burtley’s name with the Community Foundation of Greater Flint.
In addition to Kathy Burtley and Christopher Burtley, he is also survived by his son, Michael Burtley of Colorado, and his daughter, Michelle Burtley of Detroit, Mich.
A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 2020 edition of Education Week as Remembering Flint’s First Black Superintendent