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  • Hilderbrand Pelzer III

Would You Consider a School that Looks and Feels Like a Prison to be a Model of Success?

When I speak to audiences about education, I often share my experiences leading the public school inside the Philadelphia Prison System. In addition to sharing stories of the moving encounters I had with inmates and how I raised their expectations of themselves, I offer insights, guidance, and hope for those concerned about the plight of incarcerated youth and their futures. In my work, I used the resources at my disposal to change the system’s entire culture by demonstrating that incarcerated youth can learn and that a correctional environment can be a model for educational success.

I’ve had some great principalships throughout my career but being principal of the public school within the Philadelphia Prison System was the most significant and rewarding. As the leader, I held high expectations of all incarcerated youth and developed students, teachers, and prison system officials. The Philadelphia Prison System was yearning to educate its incarcerated youth. As a result, I exercised great flexibility to change structures, features, and practices that addressed the incarcerated youth, dealt with criticism of correctional education, and implemented an innovative school model that could be scaled and replicated.

Don’t get me wrong. A correctional environment is not an easy one to work in; it can be a very dangerous place. However, I focused on modeling a leadership style that was invaluable to prison system officials, as it showed them how to build stronger connections with incarcerated youth, recognized their essential role in creating a culture of learning, and positively impacted the inmates’ education, care, treatment, and custody. It was all about delivering an educational experience that would thrive within the Philadelphia Prison System community. I believe that educators at all levels can learn best practices from my experiences with correctional education.


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