Written By: Leopard Seal
When it comes to urban education, a majority of America considers it a war zone–a place where we have lost and continue to lose a war to be properly educated. Inner city schools are considered a sort of pre-prison where only kids who have no other options go until they are old enough for their parents not to be responsible for their absence. Leading the good fight in this war, Hilderbrand Pelzer III has been a first responder at the Ground Zero of urban education for over 25 years. The Philadelphia native, whose interest in education was piqued by inspiring parents, is world renown as an innovator, an author, and as a speaker. Pelzer, was educated in public and private schools in the city, finishing at a public high school that he now recognizes, didn’t do its job,
“My education in Philadelphia was a mix of private and public education experience. I would rate my education as basic. For the most part, I would describe my formative education years as pleasant, consumed with school spirit, and representative of teachers who cared about my peers and me. However, one experience that stands out and pushes me to inspire student learning and show students how they can become leaders of their own learning, is my high school’s failure to fully prepare me for college selection and career choices. I remember how confused I was about the career path that I would pursue, which had a tremendous impact on my performance during my first two years of college,” he said.
After high school Pelzer received a Bachelor of Science degree in physical education from Hampton University, a Master of Education degree in educational administration from Cheyney University, and a superintendent’s letter of eligibility from Saint Joseph’s University. He has not only been an advocate for Urban education as a solution for the obstacles facing Black men in America, but he has been behind the iron bars of correctional facilities effecting change so that an education is a part of real rehabilitation.
Pelzer was raised by educators and was drawn to continue their legacy after diverging from another career path because of opportunity and practicality.
“Educators raised me. My father is a retired school counselor. My mother is a retired school principal. I graduated from Hampton University with intentions to be employed in sports management. My first two jobs after college were a recreation director for a company that operated scattered site housing for homeless families in Philadelphia, and, then, a physical education teacher at a school for juvenile boys incarcerated at one of Pennsylvania’s juvenile correctional facilities. I was drawn to education leadership by my experiences and the lessons and commitment I had learned from working with these two distinct underserved communities. As a result, I replaced my original career goal, sports management, with a new career goal: education administration,” he said.
Pelzer, who is currently principal of Laura H. Carnell Elementary School in the North East section of Philadelphia, says the volatility of urban education and abysmal achievement levels are only two of the challenges facing urban educators.
“The biggest challenge facing urban educators is the changing urban education landscape. Urban school districts, in particular, are struggling with staggering, low achievement levels and the reality that critical stakeholders are investing in new and dramatic ways to provide public education. For instance, charter schools, private sector education management companies, and new school models are regularly created and taking hold of the public education process all across the country. Traditional public schools are closing and states are legalizing the total demise or transformation of entire school districts. As a result, school performance has taken center stage. Urban schools that have an intentional plan for measuring student growth and can realize significant student achievement gains are getting the big investments. Persistently failing schools are not being fixed. They go away.”
Pelzer also sees parental involvement as an issue but beyond just playing the usual blame game concerning parents, he sees it as a two-way street where the schools are just as much responsible as the adults.
“Parental involvement is a big issue in urban education. It will always be an issue as long as schools exist and the diversity of issues that parents live and deal with on a daily basis ebbs and flows. However, this is no excuse for not engaging parents and families and community organizations in urban schools. Parents, community members and external organizations can be central to school improvement. Schools should foster an open and welcoming culture to encourage participation. Partners bring extra resources to schools, including funding, volunteers to run programs, and external experts to support teaching and learning and curriculum development. Parents, in particular, should be given opportunities to participate in learning to visit classrooms and observe lessons in action. Schools must create innovative ways to increase outreach goals,” Pelzer proclaimed.
Early in his career Pelzer got the opportunity that many would not consider an opportunity at all, he took a position teaching at a state juvenile correctional facility, working with boys that in a lot of instances society had written off before their 18th birthday.
“I saw an ad for a physical education teacher at a school for incarcerated juvenile boys. After several years at the school, and seeing first hand the abysmal levels of illiteracy, I wanted to play a bigger role in education and work with struggling and reluctant learners. I wanted to be a principal. Over the years I have successfully led five different urban schools with difficult learning environments to achieve significant improvement trajectories, each in three years of less. My most notable work, however, was creating a successful correctional education model inside the Philadelphia prison system, the fifth-largest urban county jail system in the United States. In this role, I led the School District of Philadelphia’s educational programs in the City of Philadelphia’s six major prisons during a critical period, helping to settle a long-standing legal complaint that alleged the city and school district intentionally denied educational services to school-age youth. My team and I improved academic capacity by creating a framework that addressed legal, logistical, and educational deficiencies. My earlier experience in the juvenile correctional environment had given me valuable insight into education work behind bars and served as a powerful guide for my work inside the Philadelphia Prison System. Correctional education has allowed me to engage educators of all levels in a deeper conversation about urban education, vision building, underserved communities, specialized curriculum, high expectations for all children, compassion, problems facing the public education system, challenges teachers and school leaders face today, improving conditions for learning, and the importance of strong student-teacher relationships. As a result of my education work behind bars and other large-scale, innovative academic initiatives that I have developed, I have broadened my knowledge of systems that measure the effectiveness of leadership against student and school performance.” he said.
Pelzer’s achievements are even more notable because he is the rare African-American male in education. Though urban schools are filled with young African-American males, they rarely see anyone who looks like them in positions of authority.
“I am very proud of my work in urban education. You get out of it what you put into it. However, I certainly think the profession needs more black male teachers and principals and superintendents who have the knowledge and commitment to build stronger classrooms, schools, and school districts. The plus is that there are many black male educator groups forming around the country and advancing police that promote and monitor the hiring of aspiring black teachers and educators of all levels. The minus is that urban schools in majority poor and black communities have been historically ill served by public education; and, just maybe, the influx of black male teachers and educators could help to close the cultural divide and re-establish expectations that focus on strengthening school culture and highly effective practices for working with black boys and poor communities,” he said.
In 2011, Pelzer decided to share his knowledge and acumen for education through the written world. He penned the book Unlocking Potential, Organizing a School Inside a Prison. The text examines effectively educating incarcerated students and how that is and should be a part of real rehabilitation. The book has garnered international acclaim. The book was published in 2011. The book examines public education from an angle that is under-represented in national debates, namely, incarcerated students. It has received acclaim from scholars, public officials and education experts around the world. The Midwest Book Review heralded the book as strongly recommended for those in charge of education of imprisoned youth and called it a guide for those facing educational challenges. I use the book to engage audiences in deeper conversation and topics about urban education. The book, is available online at major book retailers including Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, and ourtskirtspress.com.
In the near future Pelzer has hope for urban education as well as his own career options. He feels positive about the many success stories he is a part of and hears about in urban education and looks forward to one day even creating his own school. He also is looking to increasing his brand and message on the importance of educating through speaking engagements. “I think about starting my own school or group of schools, often. I also think about leaving the public education sector for the private sector as a way to contribute more widely to the urgency for accelerating school improvement and teacher effectiveness, as a result of the changing urban educational landscape. Currently, I am enjoying the success of my leadership over a large neighborhood elementary school, once described by the School District of Philadelphia as “in crisis.”
“I got the school on an upward improvement trajectory in just three years. I recently turned 50 years-old. I constantly reflect on my career and think about ways that I can continue to contribute to urban education around the world as a top- tier voice and presence in the education world. I have a powerful leadership story and a unique perspective that should be shared globally. I want to increase my visibility to the global level and grow my profile beyond a limited scope and reach,including expanding consulting and speaking opportunities with urban education, correctional education, and higher education audiences, as well as media opportunities. I am also planning to use my book as a backdrop for education conferences that offer attendees the opportunity to obtain the highly effective leadership practices, motivation, inspiration, and insights to be successful in urban education.”
To invite Hilderbrand Pelzer III to speak, contact: BookingHP3@gmail.com