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Hilderbrand Pelzer III

The Principal who lifted up one of the largest jail systems through education.

With over three decades of experience, Hilderbrand Pelzer III has earned a stellar reputation as an educator, inspirational speaker, and leader. He understands that the education profession is tough and has made it his personal and professional mission to help educators overcome challenges in schools and succeed. His leadership as a principal has earned him numerous honors in this area, including the Queen Smith Award for Commitment to Urban Education, a national award recognizing urban educators’ significant contributions to urban education. In 2008, Pelzer was chosen from among 66 of the largest urban school systems across the United States to receive this award from the Council of Great City Schools. In 2023, he received the Living Legend Award from the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators. This award honored Pelzer for making a mark on the city and going above and beyond to advance opportunities and the overall quality of life for Philadelphia children, families, and communities. He also received the Moral and Courageous Exemplar Urban Educational Leadership Award from Cabrini University’s Center for Urban Education, Equity, and Improvement in 2019 and the prestigious Lindback Award for Distinguished Principal Leadership in 2014.

Pelzer is a native of Philadelphia, where he was raised with strong character values and a desire to excel. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in physical education from Hampton University and a master’s degree in educational administration from Cheyney University. Later in his career, he received his superintendent’s letter of eligibility from Saint Joseph’s University and completed the Leadership for Large-Scale Improvement training program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Harvard Institute for School Leadership.


Throughout his career, Pelzer has been driven by a vision of improving students’ lives through quality education and meaningful mentorship. His passionate approach to being a change agent has earned him the respect and admiration of students and peers alike. Pelzer has achieved something that few educators have accomplished: he has led five different urban schools and served as an assistant regional superintendent. He has also participated in three major reform efforts to turn schools around and has delivered curricula to students outside traditional academic settings. Pelzer has directed educational programs in correctional facilities and has designed two high school models for expelled students. Among his accomplishments is the creation of a successful school model for serious high-risk youth offenders in Philadelphia’s prison system. His leadership has challenged long-held false assumptions about access to quality education for juveniles in adult correctional settings. He has also designed an evidence-based model focusing on system-level solutions to legal, logistical, and educational challenges in correctional settings, clearly demonstrating his ability to strategize, focus on students, and collaborate in large, complex public-sector organizations. Based on his well-established track record of expanding opportunities for students in highly challenging situations—particularly incarcerated youth, young people who have dropped out of school, struggling readers, and expelled students—he is actively sought out to speak, inspire, and motivate educational and juvenile justice professionals and community leaders.


Early in his career, Pelzer found inspiration in incarcerated youth. Working as a physical education teacher at the Bensalem Youth Development Center, a secure state facility serving incarcerated male juveniles, Pelzer realized that he was on the right career path. He became curious about why incarcerated youth were disconnected from their in-school learning. As his experience and expertise grew, he quickly understood that he not only had to enact change to help incarcerated youth but also inspire teachers who could make lasting changes in classrooms and schools.


Throughout his career, Pelzer has drawn on his powerful educational foundation to build an exciting resume as an educator and leader. He has excelled as an assistant regional superintendent, principal, assistant principal, and physical education teacher. These roles have fueled his passion for bringing quality education and mentorship to students in the most challenging life situations. He has profound and sought-after expertise and insight into K–12 education, leadership, equity, juvenile justice, and the intricate connection between school, negative feelings of self-worth, and juvenile delinquency. Leveraging the distinctive lessons he learned inside jails, Pelzer teaches his audience how to positively affect students’ education, care, treatment, and custody by recognizing their essential roles in students’ learning and building strong connections with them.


In his book, Unlocking Potential: Organizing a School Inside a Prison, Pelzer examines urban education from a perspective that is highly underrepresented in national discussions—namely, that of incarcerated students. The book draws on his early professional experiences and nationally recognized public education work within one of the nation’s largest jail systems, the Philadelphia prison system. He offers insights into the indispensable mental perspective and leadership strategies that he relied on to create a school model that cultivated a strong educational culture in Philadelphia’s six major correctional facilities. His invaluable insight into correctional education underscores the prominent role of education in all institutions with children under their guidance. In addition, he has used multiple platforms globally to spread his words and spirit of hope. He has reached audiences at a wide range of venues, from TEDx to conferences and public forums, and his perspective on the value of education during incarceration and public school–related factors that contribute to juvenile crime and delinquency is profound and a highly sought-after topic by educators at all levels.


Heart of the City Radio Show

The Success Chronicles

Empowering Dyslexia Student Edition


“Mr. Pelzer’s work is truly inspiring and life-changing for the youth impacted. I appreciate his dedication to speak on issues of literacy, dyslexia, teacher preparation, the juvenile and criminal justice systems, and more. His book, Unlocking Potential, addresses many of these issues . . . I highly recommend him to speak to your organization.”

Stacie McClam, JD, M.Ed

School Dismissed, LLC


Director & Producer of Robbed: A Mother's Peril -
The Kelley Williams-Bolar Story

“Kids are in a jail cell all day long for months and months and months…They’re entitled to receive an education but no one has worked out how to provide that education.”

Evid Hudak

Former Colorado State Senator


“It is refreshing to see information and concerns navigated towards our unique situation. It is not often that I find information specific to what we are doing.”

Robert Leyrer

Correctional Educator

Special Education Coordinator

“Pelzer highlights and captures the educational component as a primary vehicle to power and propel impactful corrective actions and true rehabilitation.”

George May

Graystone Academy Charter School

Former Chief Executive Officer

“The work that Hilderbrand had put in to create an environment that values education was very apparent. It further illuminated my belief that young men of color when given positive models and mentors can be affirmatively developed, reclaimed, and transformed no matter their circumstances.”

Ron Walker

Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color

Executive Director (COSEBOC)

“Mr. Hilderbrand Pelzer III is an example of a man, a strong African-American man, who sees a problem with the system and instead of complaining, he confronted the system with a model created to address the problem. ”

Mr. Pelzer’s keynote was spot on and very encouraging to our staff.”

Rona Privette-Frost

North Carolina Department of Public Safety

Business/Education Services Coordinator

“It’s people like Mr. Pelzer who inspire you to want to learn.”

Prince Andrew

The Duke of York

“I can personally attest to the fact that Mr. Pelzer is an expert on this subject and worked miracles inside the Philadelphia Prison System. ”

Leon A. King, II, Esq.

City of Philadelphia


Commissioner of Prisons (Ret.)

“Hilderbrand is an extremely thoughtful leader who is deeply passionate about educating all children, particularly those students labeled as ‘most difficult’ or ‘unmotivated’.”

Dr. Traci Teasley

Michigan Department of Education

Partnership District Liason

“I found this book so inspiring. . . I learned at lot from reading it.”

Dana Micheli

Writers in the Sky

“Hilderbrand Pelzer shares his experience and practice in working with the most at-risk population of incarcerated youth. His educational model is of value to all educational settings as his core belief lies in building relationships with all students.”

Dr. Frank Garritano

Phoenixville Area School District

Principal, Ed,D.

“If you are in the field of Correctional Education and/or want to learn more about the field, pick up a copy of Hilderbrand’s book.”

Relus Lucear

South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice

Former Education Leader, Assistant Principal

“Whether you work with incarcerated youth, in an alternative setting, or in a more traditional school environment, your eyes will be opened by Hilderbrand Pelzer III’s book.”

Justin Baeder

The Principal Center


“Excellent educator who views students’ potential and unlocks their knowledge, skills, and abilities to exceptional performance levels. This educator truly cares about all students.”

Dr. Susan Nornhold

Big Think Theory

Chief Executive Officer, Ed. D

“My brain is on fire!

Powerful keynote to close out our conference. Thank you for challenging our team to overcome our challenges to unlock the potential of our students.”

Adam Johnson

North Carolina Juvenile Justice Schools
North Carolina Department of Public Safety

Director of Education

“Tremendous presentation! Continue, please with your great work. 

Literacy: A Social Justice Issue


Webinar Attendee

Hilderbrand is a K-12 warrior who has seen 'both sides' of the school to prison pipeline.”

Bill Morrison



Chief Executive Officer

You have a gift of bringing this issue to life and sharing your passion with the audience.”

Angela Marks

Reading Allowed


Executive Director

North Carolina Juvenile Justice Education

Conference Attendee

Pelzer has based his career on motivating students and teachers and focusing on the impact literacy has on success later in life.”

Angela Hockler

Kent County Public Schools


Coordinator of Student Services

Pelzer knows what it's like when individuals are coming into the corrections facilities, and they can't read.”

Terrie Noland, Ph.D.

Learning Ally


Vice President of Education Initiatives

“Your talk was so inspiring, and I know it hit home for so many people and made a real impact.”

Anna Toomey

Left Behind, A Documentary about the
Literacy Academy Collective



I was moved by many things you shared on the panel.”

Reading Allowed Speaker Series




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