Meet Pamela Kohl, a personable sixth grader who actually “loves” school because she’s “getting to know more friends.” Outside the classroom, she likes to go biking and perform gymnastics. Pamela is pretty much like any other sixth grader, except that she lives and goes to school in a remarkable corner of south-central Pennsylvania’s rolling farmland-some 40 miles away from her parents’ home in Denver, Pennsylvania.
Pamela goes to the Milton Hershey School, a combination of school and dormitory that would have been described more prosaically as an orphanage when it was founded nearly a century ago by chocolatier Milton S. Hershey. In November 1909, Milton and his wife, Catherine, created a trust for “the purpose of founding and endowing in perpetuity” a school where needy and orphaned boys would be clothed, fed, and educated. Originally named “The Hershey Industrial School,” the first handful of boys taken in had lost one or both parents and were from local farms and towns (the typical pupil had lost a father due to illness or a job-related accident, leaving the mother without the means to take care of all the children in the family). Upon Catherine’s death in 1915, Milton left most of his fortune, including control of what is now a Fortune 500 corporation, to the Milton Hershey School Trust to ensure continued support for needy kids.
Today, the Milton Hershey School Trust owns about 19 percent of the common stock and 99 percent of the Class B common stock of the Hershey Foods Corporation (the market value of the stock is about $3 billion, and the Trust controls 76 percent of the total voting shares); 100 percent of the common stock of the Hershey Entertainment & Resort Co.; 100 percent of the common stock of Hershey Trust Company (the trustee for the school trust), with about $1.4 billion in other common stocks, bonds, and notes. Last year, because of the unprecedented bull market, the school’s endowment ballooned to over $4.6 billion (larger than the endowment of Stanford, M.I.T., Columbia, or the University of Chicago).
But the Hershey School’s endowment is not the only thing that is still going strong after all these years. Nearly a century after its inception, the founder’s vision of helping socially and financially disadvantaged children endures: the Milton Hershey School is now home to over 1,000 kids grades K-12 living in 97 residential houses, each with eight to twelve students and live-in house parents. The school has students from 30 states, many of whom are not orphans at all but come from homes with young, single mothers. Others have a parent in jail, or had been taken care of by a close relative (1998’s “Outstanding Senior” was raised by his grandmother). Hershey enrolls roughly equal numbers of boys and girls. The student body’s ethnic makeup is about 49 percent White, 38 percent Black, and 12 percent Hispanic.
Whether it’s to escape a high-crime neighborhood or a crumbling local public school, what is common to all Hershey students (who must be between four and fifteen years old on admission) is that someone in their lives-typically a mother or father, but sometimes a grandmother or uncle-desperately wants them to succeed. “They know education is the key to a better life,” says Dr. William Lepley, president and CEO of the Hershey School. And while its huge endowment has provided Hershey with world-class facilities, the school’s success in reaching out to the disadvantaged is about more than just money. Hershey goes to great efforts to make the student’s experience as warm and nurturing as possible, while also demanding hard work and commitment.
Take fifteen-year-old Chris Handy from inner-city Philadelphia (fully half of Hershey students are from urban areas). Chris has been at Hershey for four years and loves the place. Math and science are his favorite subjects, and he has been involved in several local community service projects. He has a passion for the environment and is spending his summer working (students have the option of staying part or all of the summer) at the school’s Horticultural Center. The school has an Animal Center, a Dairy and Foods Processing Center, and an Environmental Center, each of which is designed to immerse the student in real-life experiences and to promote the value of personal initiative and responsibility.
Chris’s research project is to evaluate the environmental impact of the school’s campus on Spring Creek, a meandering stream used as a fish hatchery that runs through the campus. For Chris, Hershey has been invaluable: “It’s taken some of the stress off of me because before, when I was in the city, there were a lot of temptations.” Hershey has “helped me become a better person, more mature,” says Chris. He’s “more independent” and knows “where I want to go in life and where I want to be.” Asked about his plans after graduation, Chris just beams: “I want to become a chemical engineer.”
With an average class size of twelve to fifteen students, teachers are able to give plenty of attention to students like Chris. This is vital because many of the students arrive at Hershey below grade level (even though all Hershey students must have scored at least average on national achievement tests at the time of admission), and Hershey’s goal is to take these students and have them at or above grade level within two years. They accomplish this through a curriculum designed to emphasize the basics-reading, writing, and arithmetic-and sharpen the student’s critical thinking skills. By high school graduation, students have all been thoroughly drilled in math, science, social studies, and foreign languages.
The Hershey education formula works. About 70 percent of graduates go on to a four-year college, 14 percent to a two-year college, 9 percent technical or business school, 4 percent enter the military, and 4 percent the work force. One student who will surely shine in future years is Jason Brown, another Philadelphian. Entering his senior year after eight years at Hershey, Jason is spending his summer at the nearby Hershey corporate offices where he is an intern in the engineering and marketing office. Hershey is a place “full of opportunities for kids where anything is possible,” he told me. And Jason has taken full advantage. He sings in the school choir and plays the drums and piano. He and his identical twin brother Malcolm even won an art poster contest as part of the school’s campaign to promote the release of the Milton S. Hershey U.S. postal stamp. He plans on going to a four-year college pursuing a degree in engineering or design. “It’s all there for us as long as you go out and take advantage of that opportunity,” says Jason. Hershey has “opened up doors for me.”
Milton S. Hershey has opened a lot of doors for a lot of kids. So many, in fact, that earlier this summer a group of Minnesota legislators visited Hershey to learn about the school’s success with a view to setting up their own residential schools for “at-risk” youth. As the new century approaches, the Hershey school is in the midst of an extensive self-evaluation that may lead to an expanded program plus the institution’s taking a more aggressive national role in support of residential schooling. To do both would be a great testament to the vision of both Milton and Catherine
Daniel McKivergan is associate editor of Philanthropy.