Hilderbrand Pelzer III
The Principal who lifted up one of the largest jail systems through education.
With over three decades of experience, Pelzer has earned a stellar reputation as an educator, inspirational speaker, and leader. He understands that education 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. One notable honor was the Queen Smith Award for Commitment to Urban Education, a national award recognizing significant contributions to urban education by an urban educator. 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 the Great City Schools. 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 son 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. Hilderbrand has also 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 types of urban schools and has participated in three major reform efforts to turn schools around. He has also delivered curricula to students outside of a traditional academic setting. Pelzer has directed educational programs in correctional facilities, and he has also 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 challenged long-held, false assumptions about access to quality education for juveniles in adult correctional settings. He has designed an evidence-based model focusing on system level solutions to legal, logistical, and educational challenges in a correctional setting, clearly demonstrating his ability to strategize, focus on students, and collaborate in a large, complex, public-sector organization. Based on his well-established track record of expanding opportunities for students in highly challenging environments, particularly incarcerated youth, young people who have dropped out of school, and expelled students, he is actively sought out to speak, inspire, and motivate educational 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 developed a curiosity to learn why incarcerated youth were disconnected from their learning in school. 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 change in classrooms and schools. He leverages the lessons that he learned at the Bensalem Youth Development Center and, later, in the Philadelphia prison system to help educators grasp the intricate connection between school and feelings of self-worth and juvenile delinquency.
Throughout his career, Pelzer has drawn on his solid educational foundation to build a strong resume as an educator and leader. He has held positions as an assistant regional superintendent, a principal, an assistant principal, and a 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 on K–12 education, leadership, educating high-risk students, juvenile and adult correctional education, juvenile correctional school organization, and the incarcerated side of the school-to-prison pipeline.
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 incarcerated students. The book draws on his early professional experiences and his 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 on correctional education underscores the prominent role of education in all institutions that have children under their guidance. In addition, he has used multiple platforms all over the world 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 education of incarcerated youth and the inadequacy of their experiences with education is particularly 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.”
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.”
Special Education Coordinator
“Pelzer highlights and captures the educational component as a primary vehicle to power and propel impactful corrective actions and true rehabilitation.”
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.”
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. ”
“It’s people like Mr. Pelzer who inspire you to want to learn.”
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.”
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
“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.”
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.”
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