The School That Chocolate Built

Milton Hershey is famous for the sweet confection that bears his name. But a boarding school for needy children may be his most lasting legacy.

Milton S. Hershey's bounty gives underprivileged students a sweet deal.
By Michelle R. Davis
Sunday, November 2, 2008; Page W24

Mergitu Yadeto was refusing to get in the water. Standing with other sixth-grade girls clustered around a brook trout hatchery pen, she was supposed to jump into the 54-degree water, scoop up a couple of young trout in a net and dump them into a bucket.

Other girls hopped in, winced at the cold and bagged their fish, but Mergitu would only stand on the edge of the pen and use a long-handled net to scoop from there.

"I like to eat fish," she said, "not catch it."

The girls then clambered into a Milton Hershey School van and rode 10 minutes to the banks of Manada Creek, where the fish would be released. Nate McKelvie, a teacher with the Pennsylvania boarding school's environmental program, chauffeured the fish to the stream in his pickup.

On the creek bank, McKelvie placed a speckled trout from a tank in the truck bed into a plastic bucket, which Mergitu carried to the water's edge. She tentatively dipped her toe in the creek, then waded in and tipped her bucket, letting the young fish swim free. Minutes later, Mergitu and the other girls were splashing each other and wading upstream to cool off on the steamy June day.

Some of these students had never seen a stream before they arrived at the school. "I've had kids tell me they've never stepped on grass before," McKelvie said.

That's because many of the students attending the Milton Hershey School come from inner-city neighborhoods -- though some are from rural areas -- often from families with one or both parents missing, where money is scarce and life may be scarred by alcohol, drugs or violence. Mergitu's family -- her mother, her two brothers and her grandparents -- live in a Northeast D.C. neighborhood in a cramped rowhouse with broken glass on the front sidewalk and public housing across the street. Before attending the Milton Hershey School, Mergitu had never played an instrument, developed a passion for reading or ridden a bike.

The 5,000-acre campus of the Milton Hershey School is located in the town named for its founder, chocolate magnate Milton S. Hershey. The grounds are pristine: all green rolling hills and jewel-like gardens. The school and administrative buildings are spotless, and the student homes look like neatly landscaped suburban dwellings with swing sets and bird feeders outside. There's an AstroTurf football field, lots of computer labs and a recreation area with three swimming pools, a water slide and two sandy volleyball courts. A wealth of after-school activities are available, from motorcycle-building to horticulture, a rabbit-raising club, soccer, dance or cooking.

It's a residential school for 1,800 underprivileged students from preschool through high school, many of whom arrive with learning deficits and psychological issues. More than 70 percent of the students, who must be U.S.-born, come from families at or below the poverty line. The school doesn't take students with significant criminal records, and acceptance is based on a complex analysis of poverty levels, living conditions and geography. Priority is given to students who come from the three Pennsylvania counties surrounding the school, though 65 students from the Washington area attend. "Basically, we're looking for good kids in really difficult situations who deserve a shot at a normal life," said Connie McNamara, school communications director.

In addition to the obvious amenities, the school provides a host of lesser-seen services: complete medical and dental care, including braces and glasses; food and clothing; small class sizes; intense counseling services. Most students who graduate can earn up to $75,000 each in college scholarships through a combination of moderate academic success and good behavior.

All of it is free for the students. The school's $7.5 billion endowment ranks with some of the largest in the country, and the school is prohibited from accepting money from students' families.

It was the first day of sixth-grade drama class for Mergitu, her hair in a ponytail, wearing a royal blue shirt. Teacher Beth Troxell stood onstage in a middle school auditorium, the burnished wood glowing, and took roll, calling each of the 15 girls "darling" or "sweetie" or "love."

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