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Coronavirus Victims: Flint's 1st Black School Superintendent Nathel Burtley

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

COVID-19 has taken the lives of more than 63,000 people in America. One of them was Nathel Burtley. Burtley was the first African American to lead Flint Community Schools in Michigan in the late 1980s. And former students like Ja'Nel Jamerson remember him as a voice for underserved students. Jamerson ended up going into education himself due in large part to Dr. Burtley's influence.

JA'NEL JAMERSON: Learning of his work leading the Flint schools district when there were 22,000 kiddos in that district, including me, it was so inspiring to me. Needless to say, you know, having an individual who looked like me, you know, an African American individual who understood the nuances that the kids and families in our community faced, it was really encouraging.

And I was able to at that point see a space for myself. There was a particular student. He would come to school hungry or maybe his clothes weren't as clean as the other children's clothes were. And the staff would remark about the child's parent. And one day, I brought the child up to Dr. Burtley and I asked him, you know, how can we get the parents to care more, you know? And he shared with me that when these children walk through our doors, we have to believe that the parents are sending us the best that they have. And we have to use the best that we have to get them where they need to be.

His legacy that is going to last in Flint forever is really that community element that the schools aren't some island but that the school is a space where family, where community and educators can come together. We've seen that role of Flint Community Schools continue to live out today. And I believe that that's in a great way attributed to Dr. Burtley's legacy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: That was Ja'Nel Jamerson remembering former superintendent of Flint schools Nathel Burtley. Burtley died on April 6. He was 79 years old. Today, Jamerson is the executive director of both the Flint Early Care Child Care Collaborative and Educare Flint. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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