Milton Hershey Expansion is a Win for Pennsylvania’s Kids

As an alumnus of the Milton Hershey School (Class of 2006) I am very proud and inspired by the news that they intend to enter into early childhood education space.

Class of 2006 was the second class to participate in an experimental summer college course program for rising juniors. Photo taken Summer 2005.

The Milton Hershey School (MHS) is a unique institution as it is both the wealthiest K-12 institution in the world and has a mandate to only serve children with the least meansfor free. While the adjective describing students with the “least means” has changed over the years our situation has not. When I was a student at MHS we went by ‘at-risk’ but we have also gone by other names: underprivileged, historically underserved, economically and/or socially disadvantaged, disenfranchised, low-income, low-socioeconomic status, poor. In any event, Milton Hershey just announced the intention to expand the age range of the children they serve as well as are planning a new model that differs from their traditional residential group home setting.

Student Home Englewood, where I was raised, is on the far right. Milton Hershey School is a year-round residential institution that employs a group-home model for the bulk of their students. When I was a senior I also was in the first cohort of students to take part in a new more-dorm-like housing program. The whole senior class has lived in the dorm-like setting ever since. Photo circa October 2006 courtesy of Student Home Englewood.

Impacts of American Early Childhood Education

American early childhood education has been rigorously studied in theory and practice for over a century. One of my favorite examples of ancient American programs in this space is John Dewey’s Lab School. It was established over 100 years ago and still runs today. Evidence gathered in just the past 30 years alone has made an irrefutable argument that early childhood education impacts every category imaginable for the student, their family, their community, and their country. Children who come from families with lesser means start out behind and never recover.

Deprivation of educational opportunity and experiences during years 0–5 have profound, permanent, and diffusely cascading negative effects on the child for the rest of their life. Deprivation of educational opportunity will negatively impact a child’s cognitive, language, psychological, social, emotional, and intellectual development; it negatively impacts their financial and human capital accumulation, civic participation and educational outcomes. Deprivation of educational opportunity for young children can shorten their lifespan (without even going into the litany of morbidities within that statement); deprivation also increases their chances of dropping out of high school and increases the likelihood of being incarcerated. Providing early education for children has spillover benefits beyond the child’s life, and creates many benefits for our nation’s economy when led at the state level.

If you are reading this and still think “I don’t care about poor kids that are not my kids” — I can’t stress it enough: the economic argument for funding early childhood education is very strong even if it isn’t you or your kid in the program.

Student Home Englewood, during a visit in 2008.

Potential Pushback in Context

Early childhood education is a win for everyone. I’ve never seen such a broad coalition of support on a single topic ranging from corporate consulting firms to scientists to educational practitioners to economists, etc etc etc. However, there is at least one group of contrarian MHS alumni out there that will probably disagree with the Milton Hershey School’s step towards early childhood care — as they do whenever the school attempts to modernize the educational experience. The contrarian alumni group’s arguments both for change, and against change, often contradict each other even if the school implicitly accepts and implements a goal that this alumni group backed. Their ‘reports’ are rife with inaccuracies, half-truths, and rampant self-citation. I can’t understand how they continue to find their way into the world beyond their corner of the internet — usually by way of the Philadelphia Inquirer, but somehow found their way into someone’s dissertation as well as duping Harvard Law School into legitimizing them. I say this with a bit of lived experience and bias in being targeted by them while a student at MHS — this group employs a scorched earth strategy, burning current students, young alumni, staff — basically anyone that disagrees with their shifting objectives. There is only one thing that has not changed: their intent on breaking up the endowment is the only thing that has remained stable in their demands over the past 20 years.

Modernization of the educational experience is sorely needed of any centenarian institution. The Lab School mentioned earlier has understandably changed over its 100-year lifespan while, observing as an outsider, seemingly held true to its mission as it evolved. Milton Hershey School should be encouraged and supported to do the same.

May 2006, Milton Hershey School opened their first outdoor pool facility. President Johnny O’Brien is on the diving board leading the count for the senior class of 2006 polar plunge. ~May 21 2006

A Welcomed and Historic Announcement

This announcement alone from a traditionally walled off educational institution is a win for Pennsylvanian children and provides the potential to be a new model if executed successfully. Strategy creation is distinctly different from executing on any plan you come up with, and the delivery of ‘education’ in any setting — let alone the early childhood setting — is already an incredibly complex workflow. With that said, the Milton Hershey School will have its work cut out for itself in shifting its educational delivery model and educating a new age group. I for one am excited they are even signaling the attempt and look forward to watching the program as it is developed, deployed, and refined.

Drexel Psychology 2010, Penn Ed Policy 2015, Harvard Health Management 2018, Yale Blavatnik Fellow 2020