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  • Hilderbrand Pelzer III

My Queen Smith Moment

In 2008, for my commitment to urban education, I received the Queen Smith Award, a national award recognizing significant contributions to urban education by an urban educator. Erin Gruwell, inspirational educator, and author of The Freedom Writers gave the keynote speech at the conference. She discussed how she inspired troubled, inner-city youth to succeed in school when everyone else doubted their potential. Gruwell’s students—affectionately called the Freedom Writers on which the move of the same name was based—came from backgrounds of poverty, drugs, gangs, and violence, and many were at risk of dropping out of school due to the school-to-prison pipeline.

The Queen Smith Award is one of the highest honors presented by the Council of the Great City Schools. This distinction recognized my willingness to challenge long-held false assumptions surrounding access to quality education for incarcerated youth. Specifically, I was recognized for designing an evidence-based school model focusing on system-level solutions to legal, logistical, and educational challenges in Philadelphia’s prison system. In my work, I demonstrated my ability to strategize, focus on students, and collaborate in a large, complex public-sector organization.

Being nationally honored as a successful urban educator was a milestone in my career. The award spoke to my experience and expertise because I enacted significant changes to help incarcerated youth, used my perspective to expand opportunities for students in highly challenging situations, and underscored the prominent role of education in all classrooms and schools. I used the award platform to emphasize the value of education during incarceration and to enhance the visibility of public school factors that contribute to juvenile crime and delinquency.

Throughout my career, I have drawn on my powerful educational foundation to build an exciting resume as an educator and leader. Sharing stories of my moving encounters with incarcerated youth and how they helped me raise their expectations of themselves is my passion. These encounters have made me a strong inspirational advocate who is resilient in supporting underserved and marginalized students.

I share my stories and experiences to inspire juvenile justice administrators and educators, K–12 administrators and teachers, counselors, social workers, and other professionals desiring to focus on underserved and marginalized students to build strong connections and recognize their essential roles in creating a culture of learning. In doing so, they can positively impact their students’ education, care, treatment, and custody.

To learn more about my journey, contact me to schedule a keynote at


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