Education – A Passport to the Future Milton S. Hershey’s Vision for his School

Photo Submitted By Milton Hershey School
Story By Christina Heintzelman –

“The value of our good is not measured by what it does, but by the amount of good it does to the one concerned.” Milton S. Hershey

A History of the School

The story of Milton S. Hershey and his school begins with a fundamental principle that Hershey aspired to – creating a vision for the next generation. Although much can be said about Hershey, the chocolate industry he created close to his original birthplace in Derry Township, and Hershey, the town he created out of Derry Church, PA, as a model of affordable living through housing, business, schools, and arts; this story will focus on Hershey’s crowning achievement, a school founded on his principle that one is morally obligated to share the fruits of success with those less fortunate.

Milton Hershey’s childhood is not a story of privilege and wealth but rather of a child brought up in a strict home with very limited means. He left home at age 18 to earn a living, at times working as an apprentice in various businesses and then finally working as a salesman of confectionary items in Philadelphia and New York. He traveled to Colorado and worked for a caramel maker, and this is where he learned that milk is what makes caramels soft and chewy.

He came back to Lancaster penniless but with a strong sense of perseverance and self-motivation. He created the Lancaster Caramel Factory and developed an interest in using milk in chocolate to make it into a product that would allow chocolate candies to be available as an affordable product to the masses. In 1900 Hershey sold his lucrative business in Lancaster, keeping the right to continue experimenting with milk chocolate, and came back to Derry Church, his hometown, in order to experiment and work with chocolate to mass produce milk chocolate using fresh milk rather than powdered milk as was then used by the Swiss. The first Hershey milk chocolate bar was sold in 1900 priced between 2 cents and 10 cents, with the 5-cent size being the one that became the standard.

In 1905, Hershey and his wife, Catherine Sweeney Hershey, moved back into the original 1826 homestead built by Hershey’s great-grandfather and where Hershey also lived as a child. They remained there until 1908 when their permanent home, High Point Mansion, was built.

In 1909, Hershey and his wife, who had no children of their own, developed the first Deed of Trust for what would become Hershey Industrial School for boys aged four through eight whose fathers had died. Because of Hershey’s impoverished childhood and what he had seen on the streets of New York and Philadelphia with young boys trying to find work to help their families, he realized that he needed to use some of his wealth to assist these youngsters.

When Hershey opened the Milton Hershey School in 1910, The Homestead became the first residence for the first four students who arrived. George and Prudence Copenhaver devoted much of their lives as the first houseparents and licensed teachers. Word spread quickly through news articles and requests began to come in quickly for more information regarding admittance to the school. Originally The Homestead not only housed these students but also provided classrooms. Susan Alger, Coordinator of School History for MHS says, “The Homestead, where the production of milk chocolate was first perfected, grew to become the home for these boys, and as the industry grew The Homestead changed from a holistic living and working environment to a holistic living and learning environment.”

The second home used for students was the Kinderhaus, for the youngest of the boys. Throughout the years, various homes that were owned by Hershey were converted for housing as the school grew. In the 1920’s, it became apparent to Hershey that he would have to start building new homes for the ever-expanding school. Alger considers it to be of upmost importance that Hershey lived for thirty-five more years from the inception of the school, so therefore had an ongoing and direct relationship with the management and growth of the school.

Although the school opened in September of 1910, the original Deed of Trust was written in November 1909 when Hershey and Catherine signed over a 486-acre piece of farmland forming the Hershey Industrial School, and every year Founders Day is celebrated in this month with special programing for students and the community. The school has always been operated on Hershey’s background of a strong sense of work ethic coupled with an abiding faith in God. 

Catherine died in 1915 and in 1918 Hershey put most of his fortune, including his share of the Hershey Chocolate Company, into a trust for the school to allow for the perpetual funding of this initiative.

In 1933, amid the Great Depression, Hershey realized that the need for assistance to young, poor boys in the area was greatly expanding, so a change in the original deed of trust was made. As Alger explains, “We must think of this trust as a living and breathing document like the US Constitution that can change as needs change. To the outside it may look different, but foundationally Milton Hershey’s intent and guidelines will always remain the same.” This change allowed boys aged 4 through 14 to be admitted to the school and the qualifying event could be the death of a mother or a father. In 1934 a junior-senior high school building was opened.

In 1951, the school’s name was changed from Hershey Industrial School to Milton Hershey School to eliminate the possibility of the word ‘industrial’ having the connotation of a reform school, as it was then used within the adjudication system for children. 

In the 1960’s, the school’s selection of students broadened to include non-white students, and in 1976 the school expanded its definition of orphanhood to include social orphanhood, defined to mean those boys with single or divorced parents. 1977 was a landmark year as for the first time in the school’s history girls were admitted and the first eight of these young girls began their schooling at MHS.

Alger explained that the method of choosing students for the school can be thought of as the idea of concentric circles: children from Dauphin County have priority followed by children from neighboring counties, then from Pennsylvania, then neighboring states and finally from the entire country.

Megan Weber, MHS Media Relations Manager, says that in 2020 Milton Hershey School announced a new initiative to expand the impact and reach of Milton and Catherine Hershey’s vision through the Early Childhood Education initiative called Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning. Initially, the initiative will develop six cost-free Early Childhood Resource Centers in Pennsylvania for economically disadvantaged and at-risk children from birth to age 5. CHS is funded by a limited portion of the annual and accumulated income from the Milton Hershey School. The first center is currently under construction in Hershey, PA, and scheduled to be completed in 2023. The second Center will be in the Midtown neighborhood of Harrisburg with the anticipated opening in 2024. The third location – Middletown – was just announced in July 2022.

Student Home Life

Ododo Walsh, Senior Director of Home Life and Student Leadership, and an alumna of MHS class of 1998, points out that often when people think of boarding schools, they think of dormitories for students, but MHS doesn’t have dorms. “One of the things that is very unique to MHS is the very heart and core of Milton Hershey’s beliefs that all of the students should live in real homes.” She explains that Hershey did a lot of travelling to various boarding schools, orphanages, and even Girard College, visiting the dorms for their students at that time in the early 1900’s. He came out of it knowing that he wanted real homes for his students to live in. She adds, “Our campus looks just like typical suburban community living arrangements with lots of houses filled with families.” Each home contains up to twelve students and a set of houseparents, who are a married couple, to create the ideal of family living. The houseparents act as regular parents providing all the usual activities found in family living: creating meals, assisting with homework, assigning chores, attending school and other outside activities, and going on trips and vacations together. “We strive to create consistency for our students to get the best possible experience of family life here at Milton Hershey School,” she adds. 

The guidelines for houseparents are that they are at least twenty-seven years of age, a married couple, and married for three years. In addition, they must have a valid driver’s license and a minimum of a high school education. “Of the utmost importance is that they must have a heart for the mission and want to help children coming from a challenging background and have a desire to nurture them and help them reach their fullest potential.” Walsh adds that the school puts out a nationwide search to find the best people for this life-affirming work. House parent couples can bring up to two of their own children into the home which allows for a wide variety of experiences and opportunities for young couples with their own children, couples who do not have children, and older couples who have raised children and now are empty nesters.

Currently there are 180 homes for students and Walsh points out that the school is expanding, and new homes are currently being built to accommodate the additional influx of students to serve as many children as possible. 

Housing is divided by age and gender into three divisions: elementary division for children grade pre-K through fourth grade, the middle division for fifth grade through eighth grade, and the senior division which is ninth through twelfth grade. Children are housed with no more than three grade ranges between them. If children come from a family system, they can be housed together if they are of the same gender or if there is not a separation of more than three grades between them. Students usually share a room with one other student as a roommate. Houseparents normally make the decision based on personalities of the students to make the best fit possible. “Sometimes the personality differences are too great, and students have the autonomy to create roommate exchanges,” Walsh states. She adds, “When conflicts arise, there are already routines and guidelines in place so that everyone knows what the expectations are.” There is also a curriculum for home life, entitled the Compass Project, that discusses social and emotional needs of students and how to find resolution and common ground when conflicts arise, what the expectations are and how to get help if conflict arises and the student does not know how to resolve things by themself. 

There are many systems in place within the Program Support System to assist house parents, and off-site meal prep is one of them. An online fulfillment system provides full meals delivered to the home. Houseparents can also order ingredients for preparing meals or supplements to the meals within the home if they desire. Houseparents take the lead on deciding meal options, but students also have a voice in the decision.

Students are expected to assist with chores and are taught from a young age that they are capable of doing things around the home. “It is very important in our school and living environment to teach a strong work ethic, independence, and the understanding that everyone has a responsibility in taking care of their space,” Walsh says.

There are scheduled breaks and vacations throughout the year when students can go home, but for the children who choose to stay at the school, MHS is open and available to students 365 days a year. Programing entitled Year-Round Experiences with various activities are available for students who stay during break periods. “We try to package these programs with fun and learning especially during the summer when we have a much longer break,” Walsh explains. 

Although students may not have their own cars on campus, seniors are given access to an automobile once they have a driver’s license, and one of the goals is to have every graduating student earn a driver’s license. 

Students are all informed via spiritual teaching based on the Judeo-Christian religion. Students attend a chapel program that happens on a weekly basis, there are daily devotions, and they can attend different denomination churches in the area with transportation provided by the school.

Walsh states that The Home Life Program is the heart of Milton Hershey School, and the school is constantly searching for house parents to fill this role.


Skip Weber, Head of Divisions, explains that there are three divisions in the school:  the elementary division is pre-K through fourth grade, the middle division is fifth grade through eighth grade and the senior division is ninth grade through twelfth grade. “MHS aims to individualize education as much as possible, beginning in the elementary grades, mainly because we have students coming from various backgrounds and different school districts in many different states, so they are coming to us from different learning experiences. Therefore, we cannot use a cookie cutter approach for education. Currently we have students from thirty different states,” says Weber.

The model is to give children exposure to new things in elementary school, experimentation with new knowledge in middle school, and then capped off by the senior division experience.  MHS uses what is called a back map process to include what the industry recognizes as success, what post-secondary schools recognize as success, and what MHS recognizes as success for students within the various curriculums. “Our children are being exposed to necessary elements for career focused education as early as the elementary division,” Weber says.

The average class size is fifteen students, but MHS caps out around ten students for pre-K, and in some instances in the upper grades there may be class sizes of twenty students. The teaching staff is comprised of 258 full and part-time staff. There are separate school campuses for each of the three divisions. The elementary campus is located on the main campus and close to the elementary housing allowing the children to walk back and forth to school. The middle school has its campus across town on the northern side of Hershey and house parents drive students to and from classes.  The senior high school is located on the southern side of town, closer to other academic buildings and the Spartan sports complexes. There is a shuttle system to assist students navigate through the campus areas and to transport students to various off campus activities.

 MHS competes in PIAA athletics as the Spartans. They participate in performing arts and other extracurricular activities which are juried and judged, competing in the same way as public schools across the state.

MHS assists potential college and trade school students monetarily by accruing scholarship credits based on behavior and academic performance through their high school years. This accrual can amount to $95,000.00 per student. “Our students are truly the beneficiaries of Mr. and Mrs. Hershey. Their legacy continues with individuals, students, and families and allows us to resolve many situational issues while allowing parents/sponsors to continue in a parallel progress with their own educational needs while their students are here at MHS.” Weber continues by saying, “We are proud to be able to offer programs in many different fields to our parent/sponsors knowing that we never take the place of parents, sponsors, grandparents, and other family members.  The goal is to partner with families for the successful transition of their child, and our student, for a successful life after MHS.” Programs for parent/sponsors are held on campus and virtually via zoom or teams’ calls. “These methods help to close the gap between the school students and families who may be hundreds of miles away. We’ve harnessed the power of technology to increase and maintain our relationship with families,” Weber explains.

STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is integrated across all the curricula of the school to ensure that all students are exposed to these topics whether in the classroom or in extracurricular activities based on their interests. “Makerspace classrooms are available in our elementary classrooms to allow students to tinker, play, dream, build, and explore. It is amazing to see the faces of those kids when they create a robot, and they program that robot to go through a maze or follow a racetrack. This is putting learning from their minds into their hands,” Weber states.

 All high school students must take a year and a half credit of coding, mainly to assist students in learning logic, problem solving, collaboration, communication, and thinking outside the box. “We want to make sure that our graduates have the capabilities to be successful in a number of different areas. We want to make sure we graduate students of high character who understand a high level of work ethic and integrity – who understand teamwork, respect, and collaboration,” he adds.

All students are exposed to agricultural, horticultural, and environmental studies through various classes in science and math, but students can specialize in these fields and complete internships in these fields through various Hershey entities where students are able to grow food or produce and then sell or provide these products to the entities. “Students learn all phases from planting, maintaining, and harvesting the crop and then selling that crop or product to local individuals or industries in our community so that they can complete the full circle. They learn employability skills and social skills while engaging in these studies.” 

Megan Weber, Media Relations Manager, states that the MHS CTE (Career and Technical Education)’s twelve pathways prepare their students for careers in many different areas: agriculture, automotive, business and finance, computer science, construction and carpentry, culinary arts, education and human services, electronic media and journalism, engineering and design, graphic communication, health science, and law and public safety.

Skip Weber adds that because of the close connections with all the various Hershey entities, students can receive internships in their specified career fields and earn some additional money through these internships. The school’s goal is to give students authentic work experiences that are tied to their career goals through specific career related opportunities in various industries and businesses. 

Weber states, “It is important that students learn financial literacy and they have opportunities to earn an allowance. High school students have a debit card for an on-campus bank, and they can manage their own money in order to experience what it is like in the real world. Seniors also live in transitional living style apartments and have responsibilities such as paying utility bills and rent along with going to the grocery store and cooking meals. They are responsible for working together to manage funds, so they last an entire month.”

Weber concludes by describing the Graduate Program for Success designed for graduating students of MHS. “We have a very comprehensive alumni organization to support graduating students no matter what their career path might be. There are higher education specialists who travel to the various colleges to assist students, individuals who assist graduates who are immediately going into the work force, and others who assist students who have decided to take a military path career. Students have five years to take advantage of their accrued scholarships and six years to complete their post graduate education. So, in effect, a student graduating from MHS at age 19 could have benefits up until the age of thirty. We continue to provide support because we want to know our students are prepared and have that option of support like a normal family would have. Our support doesn’t end when a student walks across the stage at graduation.”

Megan Weber closes with “Our students are always out and about the community doing internships within authentic work experiences and we want the community to be aware of what we do.” Skip Weber adds, “It is important for our students to know that for all they have received it is their responsibility to give back for the betterment of our local community and the greater Harrisburg area.”

 For one hundred-and-ten-years Milton and Catherine Hershey’s legacy, not only for the town of Hershey but, in a larger context, the enrichment of the lives of thousands of young people through the Milton Hershey School, continues to reap its benefit – not just in this locality, but also throughout the country, as these graduates go out and make their way forward into our society.