Education Funding

Hershey School Lives With Controversy

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 16, 2002 10 min read
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There are private schools. And then there’s the Milton Hershey School.

The school bearing the name of its benefactor, the late chocolate-candy magnate Milton S. Hershey, was thrust onto the international stage recently when its board of managers considered selling the company whose sweet success has made the school’s $5.5 billion trust one of the nation’s wealthiest.

And though the board has backed down from a sale—talk of which stirred a ruckus here—it doesn’t look as if the school’s leaders will be left in peace anytime soon.

More than 6,500 Hershey residents, school alumni, and others who strongly opposed the sale of Hershey Foods Corp. have asked the Pennsylvania attorney general to oust the school’s board of managers.

The recent uproar aside, however, controversy seems to be part of the identity of this unusual tuition-free school, which Mr. Hershey and his wife, Catherine, founded in 1909 and which now spends an average of $96,000 per student each year.

The same 17 people who manage the trust for the school and explored the sale of Hershey Foods, the candy company founded by Mr. Hershey, are also those who manage the school. And how that powerful board interprets the 93-year-old deed of trust that spells out how Mr. Hershey wanted his money spent is central to the school’s high and often turbulent profile. (“Hershey School Part of Fight Over Candy Giant,” Sept. 18, 2002.)

Following the exploration of a Hershey Foods sale, critics are reiterating their positions on some long-standing disagreements with the school’s board of managers. Foremost of these is: Who should get the chance to receive the very special Milton Hershey School education?

Many also wonder whom the board of managers will hire to replace the school’s outgoing president, William L. Lepley, who plans to retire at the end of this school year after 10 years in the job.

“It’s a school that has controversy,” acknowledged Naomi V. Duprat, a high school English teacher at the school. “You can’t have a trust fund of the amount that we have and not have a political element.”

On the other hand, she said, the fact that the school is opening its doors to reporters is a sign that it doesn’t want to keep secrets.

Middle-Class Benefits

Despite the great resources of the school, classroom instruction doesn’t appear significantly different from that at other private schools. Students move between classes on a newly constructed $230 million campus consisting of attractive buildings with sunlit lobbies, resembling the campus of a small college.

With a student-teacher ratio of 10-to-1, class sizes are in the same range as those of other independent schools.

Students choose from a variety of electives and after-school activities. One 7th grader, for example, is learning to play hand bells and is also taking tuba and piano lessons. The school provides a college-prep curriculum, but students also may choose to follow one of seven vocational tracks, such as carpentry or horticulture, in which they spend two hours per day in the upper grades.

In race and ethnicity, the 1,300 students here are more diverse than at many other private schools. The enrollment is 50 percent white, 34 percent African- American, and 16 percent Hispanic, Asian, or other.

The diversity is due to changes to Mr. Hershey’s deed of trust that were made by the board of managers in the 1970s. Mr. Hershey, who died in 1945, wrote that his school should provide a home and school for poor, healthy, white boys with good behavior and scholastic potential whose fathers had died.

Because of the court-approved changes, girls and minority students, plus “social orphans"—children whose parents are living but can’t take care of them—are now eligible for admission.

Other changes have occurred as well. Mr. Lepley’s legacy as president has been to bring standards-based education to the school. Prior to taking the helm of the school, he was the state schools chief for Iowa.

“The kids should know the rationale for every assignment that they are given as to how it relates to the objective and standard ultimately, whether they are in the 1st grade or 12th grade,” he said.

Indeed, during a two-day visit by a reporter with a constant escort, students were found frequently to be working from handouts that spelled out specific learning objectives.

The focus on standards has received mixed reviews from teachers. “Many of us question whether this will be effective with our particular students,” said Lewis K. Webster, a social studies and history teacher here for 25 years. “Some of the standards set forth are far lower than any that we want to apply.”

Thriving at Hershey

In classrooms, students seemed to be on task and spoke freely with one another and their teachers.

In Ms. Duprat’s senior English class, for example, students shared aloud journal entries about respect in preparation for reading a short story by Richard Wright. The sharing evolved into a discussion in which some students shared personal examples of being respected or of being denied respect.

The school aims to provide all the benefits that middle-class children receive—and then some.

It pays for house parents, spacious living quarters, meals, clothing, exercise equipment, music lessons, optional summer camp, braces, computers, and, after graduation, a full, four-year scholarship plus room and board to any college, university, or technical school. Ninety-one percent of the school’s graduates go on to attend college or a technical school.

Even with all the extras, the students aren’t the direct beneficiaries of the entire spending of $96,000 per pupil, Mr. Lepley explained. Total expenditures, which work out to that amount per student, include the college-scholarship program for alumni and the cost of running the school’s monumental administration building, which is open to the public and receives about 50,000 tourists each year who are interested in Mr. Hershey’s legacy.

In 2001, Mr. Lepley earned $220,500, plus $156,300 in benefits, according to a form filed with the Internal Revenue Service by the board of managers.

Senior Kristen L. VanRiper and sophomore Eric P. Rush have thrived in the Milton Hershey School environment.

Ms. VanRiper and her two brothers arrived at the school three years ago. She said her biological father is not involved in her life, and her stepfather died when she was 6. She believes the school accepted her and her brothers because they had good grades and her mother was having financial difficulties.

“You have to have a certain level of education to come here,” she said.

The school doesn’t turn away students once they are enrolled if their families’ financial situations improve, which is the case with Ms. VanRiper.

Ms. VanRiper said she has had opportunities here she never would have had in her public school in Ocean City, N.J. For instance, the school sent her to youth-leadership conferences in California and Florida. And she revels in the chance to be in school plays.

Mr. Rush arrived in 7th grade, while being raised by his grandmother. His parents aren’t living. His grandmother, a secretary at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, was able to provide more than the basics, he said, but it wasn’t as if he could go into a store and pick out anything he wanted. He attended a private Lutheran school from kindergarten to 6th grade and a public school for 7th grade.

He said the Hershey School has had a big impact on his life. In Pittsburgh, he “got caught in the wrong crowd,” Mr. Rush said. Though he failed 7th grade there, he now is a B student, he said.

He’s also become more physically fit through wrestling and playing football.

What Is ‘Poor’?

The school’s admissions policy is controversial, particularly to critics who question why it doesn’t automatically make poverty its first criterion for entrance.

“Why not take the neediest kids?” said Joe W. Berning, the vice president of the school’s alumni association. When he attended the school in the 1960s and 1970s, he said, “there was no doubt that everyone needed the school. Now, there is doubt.”

He and others say the school has become a college-preparatory school for middle-class children.

Mr. Lepley argues that Mr. Hershey’s deed of trust doesn’t give poverty any higher priority than other admissions criteria.

Still, he maintains, students at the school are needy. The highest total income of a family of the students admitted last year was $49,600, and that was for a family of five, according to school officials. The average total family income for students enrolled last year was $17,700, or 100 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of four at the time.

Under an agreement that the school’s board of managers signed in July with state Attorney General Mike Fisher, the school will soon change some of its admissions practices.

Starting in the fall of 2003, the school’s board of managers will cap the income for families of children admitted to the school at 150 percent of the federal poverty line, instead of 250 percent.

Mr. Lepley said it was set at 250 percent so the school could admit children who received Social Security benefits, but whose parents couldn’t care for them.

“The challenge we have with this discussion is what is ‘poor’?,” Mr. Lepley said. “Who’s going to define it? What the attorney general’s agreement does is take us a long way in helping get clear about what that shall be.”

Robert and Elisabeth Cayer, the house parents of Eric Rush, hope the agreement will ensure that the neediest children are enrolled.

“I’d like to see them take the kids who are in need who want to be here,” Mr. Cayer said.

“We’ve heard kids say, ‘I don’t really want to be here—but I’m here for the scholarship,’” Ms. Cayer added. “We hate hearing that.”

Ric Fouad, the president of the alumni association, charges that the new agreement is meaningless because it contains carefully worded language that allows the school to do whatever it wishes.

Long-Running Disputes

Disagreeing with the school’s admissions policies is just one of many complaints Mr. Fouad and Mr. Berning have had against the board of managers.

They’ve been fighting the administration and the board for 12 years, ever since the board proposed ending the school’s vocational program. The alumni successfully pressured the board to keep a scaled-back version. In 1999, they stopped the board from using $50 million in trust money to establish a teacher-training institute.

Both men, along with four former members of the board of managers, have signed the petition that asks the state attorney general to remove the trustees. The attorney general hasn’t yet acted on the petition.

Their ongoing activism, Mr. Fouad said, “is a visceral, instinctive response to what we view as an attack on our family.”

For his part, Mr. Lepley has tried to stay focused on the school during his tenure as president. During his decade-long-tenure, Mr. Lepley says he has agreed with the school’s philosophy of preparing students academically as well as for the rigors of real life.

Between 6 and 6:30 on a recent morning, a dozen sleepy boys moved about a household doing their 20-minute chores for the day. Their work translated into privileges, such as receiving a higher weekly allowance. By 6:40 a.m., they had to have prepared and eaten breakfast, lest they receive a negative mark on their merit charts.

But creating a safe home life for the youngsters here can be a challenge.

The school commissioned a panel of experts recently to study a number of incidents involving sexual assaults between students. Among the panel’s recommendations, which were released in March, were that the school get more extensive information on student applicants, and limit the age ranges in student homes.

Sitting at one of several small dining room tables at her residence after school, Kristen VanRiper says she’s proud of her school, and feels it sometimes receives unwarranted criticism.

“There are a lot of rumors about the school because it’s different from a public or [regular] private school,” she said. “The little things get blown up because it’s the Milton Hershey School.”

“When something good happens,” she added, “everyone wants to find a flaw, so they do it with the Milton Hershey School.”


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