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Milton Hershey School and Hershey Trust Company petition court for permission to create Early Childhood Education centers

The Initiative will initially consist of up to 6 cost-free Resource Centers in Pennsylvania for economically disadvantaged and at-risk children from birth to age 5.

HERSHEY, Pa. — Editor's Note: The above video is from April 2020. 

Milton Hershey School and the Hershey Trust Company announced Wednesday they have filed a petition in the Orphans’ Court Division of the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas requesting authorization to develop and fund a holistic Early Childhood Education Initiative, or ECE. 

The Initiative will initially consist of up to six cost-free Early Childhood Resource Centers in Pennsylvania for economically disadvantaged and at-risk children from birth to age 5.

"From cradle to career, we can begin to provide that foundation," said Robert Heist, chairman of the board of the Hershey Trust Company.

If the court approves the petition, planners said, the first ECRC will be built on the Milton Hershey School campus. A second ECRC will be built in Harrisburg. 

The locations of other ECRCs will be determined by the School’s Board of Managers after Court approval.

The ECRCs will help not just the youngest children, but also their families, school officials said.

"We think about helping parents becoming better nurturers and the importance of play, and the importance of early learning. All of that is so vital to a successful launch in life," said Milton Hershey School President Peter Gurt. 

The Centers will operate through subsidiaries of Milton Hershey School, planners said in a press release. 

The proposed ECE Initiative, to be funded by a limited portion of the annual and accumulated income from the Milton Hershey School Trust, is designed to expand the impact and reach of the vision of Milton Hershey School’s founders, Milton and Catherine Hershey.

One graduate of the school's Class of 2019 attested to the success of that vision. Thalia Vega, 20, rose from a difficult childhood of constant moving and occasional homelessness to attending Arcadia University near Philadelphia. Vega said she plans to someday return to teach at the school.

"If I didn’t go to the Milton Hershey School, I honestly wouldn’t be who I am today," Vega said. "They taught me of course etiquette, they taught me how to interact with people, they taught me how to be more clean, because we do a lot of chores there. They just taught me things that I would have never learned at home."

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro on Wednesday issued a statement expressing support for the plan.

"As Attorney General, I have pushed the Hershey Trust to better meet its charitable mission by expanding its impact and investing more of its considerable resources educating Pennsylvania's children," he said. "I challenged the Trust's Board to reimagine the educational support it provides and to think creatively about how to put to use its accumulated income while continuing to honor the intentions of Milton and Catherine Hershey.

“After many months of review, vetting and discussion, my office looks forward to the presentation of the Trust's proposal before the Orphans’ Court in determining if the new early childhood education program meets those goals. As the people's Attorney General, I am determined to ensure more children benefit from the legacies of Milton and Catherine Hershey."

Milton Hershey School’s current annual enrollment has climbed to more than 2,100 children at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year, the largest in its history, with plans to continue enrollment growth, according to president Peter Gurt.

“Throughout our 110-year history, Milton Hershey School has developed new ways to expand and enhance the impact of Milton and Catherine Hershey’s vision. The ECE Initiative continues that process,” said Gurt, who is also an alumnus of the school. “With sustained outstanding academic results and a retention rate that reached a 50-year high, we now have an incredible new opportunity to serve even more children from economically disadvantaged and at-risk backgrounds.” 

The ECE Initiative will help address the disparities in academic performance between children who receive high-quality education prior to entering kindergarten and those who do not -- commonly referred to as the “school readiness gap.” 

The proposed ECE Initiative was developed in collaboration with internal and external experts, planners said. It will focus on a core early learning program that features a rigorous and relevant curriculum and is aligned with the mission to enhance the development of an enrolled child’s educational, social, emotional, cognitive and physical well-being during their most formative years. 

Additional key components will include nutritious meals, transportation (as necessary) and other needed supplies, according to planners.

Integrated support services will also be included for families of enrolled children, the school said.

Subject to Court approval, the proposed ECE Initiative is designed to improve school readiness for children from disadvantaged and at-risk backgrounds while introducing new populations to the benefits and programming of Milton Hershey School. 

The $350 million investment to initially construct and operate up to six ECRCs over approximately six years will be provided by a limited portion of the annual income from the Milton Hershey School Trust and a limited portion of the Trust’s accumulated income from prior years. 

The Milton Hershey School and Hershey Trust Company together reported assets of $13.8 billion, as of 2017.

The Trust has grown substantially and has historically produced more income than is needed for full funding of Milton S. Hershey School. That will continue to be the case, even with its planned enrollment growth, the school said.

“Throughout our research and validation of the ECE Initiative, it was critically important that the funding and well-being of Milton Hershey School and its students were a top priority,” said Robert Heist ’82, Chairman of the Milton Hershey School Board of Managers. “We are always investing in Milton Hershey School, our programs, and our staff to better serve our students. The plan provides a financial basis for the ECE Initiative without any negative impact on funding for the School or on our continuing plan for enrollment growth.” 

More information about the ECE Initiative can be found at hersheyearlylearning.org.

For more information on the Milton S. Hershey School, visit mhskids.org.

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