While most people associate school buses with children, education, and the color yellow, the vehicles conjure up an entirely different image for Hilderbrand Pelzer III. As the principal of the Pennypack House School—the Philadelphia public school that operates within the Philadelphia Prison System—the buses Pelzer saw on a daily basis were white, used to transfer inmates from correctional facilities to courthouses, and the embodiment of the path from public school to dropout to crime to prison that so many young men of color find themselves on.
With a focus on juvenile defendants who have been charged as adults, Pelzer examines education behind bars in his recently published book, Unlocking Potential: Organizing a School Inside a Prison.
“Correctional education is a subject most people don’t think about, but for defendants who are still of school age there are legal requirements and ramifications for education,” explains Pelzer. “The model we used in Philadelphia was to integrate school into the prison system.”
Over ninety percent of state prisons provide some kind of educational program for their students according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. However, a national survey by the Center for Effective Collaboration and Peace
found that only 29 percent of juveniles in U.S. adult correctional facilities were enrolled in education programs.
In his four years as head of Pennypack House, Pelzer enrolled over 2,000 youths in the school’s program. Many of these youths came to Pennypack from a public school system that had failed to properly engage them, and left them lagging many years behind in their academic development. “Despite the conditions of prison, I felt that the school had to be the one place where students could feel their lives improving in an academic culture that was nurturing and organized around a strong commitment to their growth and learning,” writes Pelzer in his book.
At COSEBOC’s Fifth Annual Gathering, a number of members saw firsthand what education was like behind bars when they took part in a community service event at Pennypack House. Accompanied by Pelzer and COSEBOC Executive Director Ron Walker, the group of volunteers engaged in discussion and activities with 50 young men between the ages 15 and 17 who were serving time.
“Our visit to Pennypack was truly a powerfully memorable experience for every man who made the trip. 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,” says Ron Walker.
In order to create the conditions that so impressed the visiting COSEBOC delegation Pelzer introduced a number of reforms into Pennypack that can assist others who run educational programs for adjudicated youth. Chief among these efforts was the creation of the Juvenile Focused Correctional Education School Model (JFCESM). The model addresses a variety of issues related to curriculum, instruction, and navigating space and resources.
“Key to the strategy is to use the local district curriculum—it is both accessible and cost-effective. We also used a cohort model with two to four teachers teaching 15 to 20 students. Using this model helps to build a relationship between students and teachers,” says Pelzer. The model is non-graded and each student receives grade- appropriate instruction in core courses (literacy, math, science, and social studies).
The implementation of JFCESM has had a positive effect on everyone associated with Pennypack, including students, staff, and administrators. Despite this, some question whether education belongs behind bars, a question Pelzer pointedly addresses in the book.
“So often we hear rhetoric about education from public officials: ‘All children deserve a quality education’; ‘all students can learn’; or (famously) ‘No Child Left Behind.’ If these statements have any truth, no student should receive an inferior education simply because of where he or she attends school.”
Learn more: http://www.hp3-unlockingpotential.com