Feature Article from the Vanguard, Fall 2011 - A Newsletter published by the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color
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
By Tonisha Pinckney, Philadelphia Life Coach Examiner Posted: 09/14/2011 6:06 PM
A life-long resident of Philadelphia and current resident in the Mt. Airy section of the city, Mr. Hilderbrand Pelzer III has a unique passion for the youth of Philadelphia. Mr Pelzer is an award-winning educator. He served the youth as a teacher, principal, and assistant regional superintendent. Impressively, Mr. Pelzer received national recognition for his leadership at the Pennypack House School (a Philadelphia public school which operates within the Philadelphia juvenile prison system ).
When asked, “What sparked your passion for juvenile justice reform including quality education?” Mr. Pelzer said, “I first became involved in correctional education in 1989, as a young man right out of college. I worked as a teacher and coach at the Bensalem YDC, a juvenile correctional facility for many of PA’s notorious juvenile offenders. As a teacher, I had a front row seat to the educational and academic challenges and limitations that just about all of the students demonstrated. In fact, it was my goal to move my career into sports management; but, after observing so much educational despair I decided to pursue a career in educational leadership. I realized that there were a lot of myths about the possibilities and capabilities of high functioning schools in prisons and the willingness of inmates to pursue education or complete a high school education. Also, with the fact that correctional facilities are designed for security and incarceration purposes, integrating and organizing schools inside of them is very difficult. Yet, school-age youth are in jails all around the world. They are entitled to an education. But, there is no model to provide that education.”
While addressing concerns about the juvenile justice system in the United States, but specifically in Philadelphia, one must address the issue of flash mobs. Flash mobs have become dangerous and even deadly. Many believe the teens should be arrested and prosecuted harshly. Mr. Pelzer says, “I think the flash-mob problem demonstrates the destructive path that some youths seek. Youths involved in the flash-mobs, as well as those that seek to engage in criminal activity, should be held for justice.” There are those who would not agree. Some feel flash mobs are the result of the lack of funding for activities and training which interest youths. In other words, they have too much free time, too much energy, too much on their minds, and too few adults caring or listening. Some Philadelphians feel the prosecution of teens involved in flash mobs is selective and disproportionate. They wonder if African-American youths are more prone to being arrested and prosecuted than those of other races. Whichever belief you hold, flash mobs are a problem which must be dealt with and the juvenile justice system must be prepared to address the problem, be the solution, and reform the youths.
Mr. Pelzer has a book entitled Unlocking Potential: Organizing a School Inside a Prison . His “overall goal for writing [his] book [was] to show school superintendents, corrections professionals, teachers, and educators of all levels how to make superior educational services for incarcerated school-age youth come alive.” His book reveals a model which can be replicated in public schools everywhere. Mr. Pelzer says, “The model is built around the important relationships between students and teachers and curriculum and instruction.” His book was inspired by his work inside the Philadelphia Prison System, the 5th largest urban county jail system in the US.
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 is an agent of change. He makes himself, his knowledge, his wisdom, his education, and his experiences available to incarcerated and at-risk youths (directly or indirectly) so they do not forget that the American Dream is obtainable. Mr. Pelzer reminds the educators and politicians that no one is exempt from living the American Dream regardless of culture, heritage, or criminal background. As he says, “I believe the American Dream is attainable! With the right guidance and support from our community partners we can ALL move closer to reaching the dream.”
Contact Info for Mr. Hilderbrand Pelzer III | Unlocking Potential
Unlocking Potential: Organizing a School Inside a Prison available online at major retailers
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