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5 Questions for...Pete Gurt, president, Milton Hershey School and Catherine Hershey Schools

April 19, 2021

Unable to have children, chocolate magnate Milton Hershey and his wife, Catherine, established the Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pennsylvania, in 1909 as a boarding school for orphaned boys. A decade later, Hershey created a $60 million endowment for the school – an endowment which today has grown to more than $17 billion.

In the more than hundred years since it was established, the Hershey School has changed its admission policies to allow girls, students of color, and children whose parents are still living. This past fall, the school committed $350 million over six years to establish six learning centers in Pennsylvania that will serve disadvantaged and at-risk youth from birth to age five.

In March, MHS announced plans to open its first Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning (CHS) in 2023 and a second by 2024. Philanthropy News Digest spoke with MHS president Pete Gurt about the initiative and the organization’s goals in the area of early childhood education.

Headshot_Pete_Gurt_MHS_CHSPhilanthropy News Digest: You're investing a lot of money, $350 million, to create six Catherine Hershey centers in Pennsylvania over the next decade or so. How did you and the board arrive at the amount? And how will the centers build on and advance the mission of MHS?

Pete Gurt: The mission of MHS is to educate low-income children so they can lead fulfilling and productive lives and escape the cycle of poverty. MHS currently serves two thousand children in pre-K through twelfth grade. Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning represent a tremendous opportunity for us to further our mission and help disadvantaged and at-risk children who are younger — from birth to age five. We believe the program at CHS will give low-income children the foundation they need to become kindergarten-ready and ultimately reach their full potential. And just like at MHS, there will be no cost for children to attend.

PND: What exactly will that investment support and how many students will the centers serve?

PG: Over approximately six years, the $350 million investment will go toward the construction and operations of up to six centers in Pennsylvania. CHS is a privately funded project that does not draw from tax dollars or other public sources of income. The first center, scheduled to open in 2023 on the MHS campus in Hershey, will serve a hundred and fifty local-area children from low-income backgrounds.

CHS plans to have up to eighty employees and volunteers at the first school. Once all six centers are open, about nine hundred children will be supported by the initiative.

PND: What inspired your decision to do this now?

PG: The boards and management of MHS and the Hershey Trust Company underwent a comprehensive, multiyear study of potential ways to serve more low-income children. After careful consideration, our leadership recognized the extraordinary opportunity that CHS represents.

The centers will provide a quality educational program to some of the youngest and most vulnerable kids in Pennsylvania. And while the COVID-19 pandemic didn't directly inspire our decision to move forward with CHS, it’s made the challenges that children living in poverty face clearer than ever. The child poverty rate in the U.S. rose to nearly 20 percent during the worst months of the pandemic, underscoring just how many kids are in need. We believe CHS is the right initiative at the right time and are confident it will have a positive impact on children, their families, and our communities at a moment when that is what we need.

PND: The kids at MHS come from low-income backgrounds. What do you hope the new Catherine Hershey schools will be able to do to build stability for the kids they enroll?

PG: For more than a hundred and ten years, MHS has been serving children from economically disadvantaged and at-risk backgrounds by providing a quality education and home life experience. Those lessons will be applied to CHS, while also being age-appropriate for the children who attend them.

The CHS curriculum will focus on the child’s educational, social, emotional, and cognitive development — supporting the "whole child." Children also will be provided nutritious meals, transportation, and the supplies they need to succeed. Each center will have a dedicated staff member to connect parents to resources that will assist families in building and maintaining stability. Those resources will include parenting and educational information, housing services, healthcare referrals, and job training.

In developing the CHS program, we were guided by research from leading early childhood education experts. We hope the result will help more children escape the cycle of poverty. We encourage readers to visit www.chslearn.org to learn more.

PND: Do you think the model you've developed for CHS is replicable nationally?

PG: We certainly hope our whole-child education program will be replicated around the country. Part of our goal in creating the CHS initiative is to develop best practices that can be shared with other educators. Research shows participation in quality early childhood education programs can directly improve kids’ learning and development. Much of the school readiness gap between low- and high-income students is created — and can be prevented — before formal schooling begins through early childhood education.

We believe CHS is an important starting point for changing the trajectory of children from low-income families. This is critical work, and we want to set an example that would make our founders, Milton and Catherine Hershey, proud.

Matt Sinclair

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