My Sweet Time in Hershey, Pennsylvania

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Recently, I had the privilege of visiting the Milton Hershey School in Hershey, PA. It had been years since I’d been to that city, and frankly, I didn’t know if it had any value to add except great chocolate bars. Boy, was I wrong.

Way back in 1909, Milton Hershey and his wife decided that since they couldn’t have children of their own, they would “adopt” a whole population of them, offering an education that would prepare them for life and career. They wanted to focus on at-risk kids who came from poor homes (both financially as well as socially). So they took the money they had made from selling those marvelous Hershey’s chocolate bars and set up a trust that funds the development of children (and still exists to this day).

Today, the school serves nearly 2,000 students (pre-K through 12th grade) who live in 171 campus homes with house parents. It is the largest residential education program in the nation.

What I Learned…

What I saw was a haven that rescued kids from an almost certain cycle of poverty and dysfunction, as the majority of students have at least one parent in prison or don’t even know one of their parents. I heard story after story of both staff and students who’d come from a rough background and had gotten on track to a good life at Milton Hershey School. It was downright inspiring.

Hershey Event

The evening I arrived, our team met with a house full of middle-school girls, complete with all the drama and concerns of young teenage females. We asked them questions about their lives, hopes, dreams, and what they most needed from the caring adults around them. Frequently, a student’s time at MHS begins with the challenge of moving from a life of chaos to one of discipline and systems. However, over time, those systems—and the adults who direct them—provide the very security those insecure students need to mature into healthy adults. In fact, I noticed several elements on campus that made the school unique. Here’s what impressed me most:

  1. The focus on raising a child well.

While the school offers classes in reading, writing and arithmetic, MHS places a huge emphasis on developing kids into healthy people, knowing that a student can’t really learn well if they suspect they are unloved, unsafe or malnourished. Hundreds of house parents play an important role in this, as many of the students have never had a parent model what healthy adulthood looks like.

  1. The development of social and emotional intelligence.

The school has a curriculum supervisor for social and emotional learning named Deanna Slamans. Deanna is an alumnus of Milton Hershey School and knows the importance of obtaining practical social skills. When she was 7, while her father was in prison, her mother killed herself. MHS took her in and helped her, and now, Deanna is committed to building character-based young leaders who know how to relate to other people.

  1. Guidance in identifying a student’s strengths and value.

By the time students reach high school, they are given assessments that help them identify their primary strengths and guide them into the most appropriate career choices after graduation. What’s more, Career Counselors offer direction and stay in touch with students long after graduation. They know that if there’s no hope for the future, there is no power in the present.

  1. The cultivation of life and career skills.

MHS is committed to providing job-related classes that teach technical skills and prepare students for a career after graduation. The goal is to build career-ready students, and MHS’ partnerships with The Hershey Company, Hershey Entertainment & Resorts, and the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center give students great opportunities for on-the-job learning through co-op experiences, internships, job shadowing, and part-time employment.

  1. Scholarships to attend college

Milton Hershey School focuses on ensuring every graduate is ready for college or a career right out of high school. On average, 90% of graduating seniors plan to pursue some type of postsecondary education. With the opportunity to earn financial assistance for postsecondary education through the school’s continuing education scholarship, pathways to the future—whether it’s through a (CES) program, college, art school, technical school or community college—are within reach for all graduating seniors.

Although the school launched over a hundred years ago, Milton Hershey School is a model for what our educational institutions need to offer: the development of hard and soft skills in an environment of character, love and support. May their tribe increase.

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  • Guide unprepared adolescents and at-risk kids to productive adulthood
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  • Adopt education strategies that engage (instead of bore) an “I” generation
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My Sweet Time in Hershey, Pennsylvania