Institutions That Work: Milton Hershey School

HERSHEY, Pa. (WHTM) – In an era where so many of us have lost faith in our institutions, ABC27 is focusing monthly on Institutions That Work.

There are many of them right here at home, including the Milton Hershey School.

There, we met Eli Coniff, of Pittsburgh. It’s a happy time in his life. He just graduated after arriving at MHS when he was in the fourth grade.

He says it saved his life.

“I wonder often where I’d be if it wasn’t for the Milton Hershey School, but I can say definitely that I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in now,” Coniff said.

The Milton Hershey School is a one-of-a-kind, free boarding school; pre-K through high school. It’s funded by a massive, $13 billion endowment at the Hershey Trust.

Who gets to attend? Children in extreme economic hardship.

Psychologist Beth Shaw is in charge of the school’s non-academic support, which is vast: psychological, medical, drug and alcohol counseling, and more. She says when a child’s inner life is in order, everything else can fall into place.

“Just the ability of our students to thrive and be able to participate in the opportunities that build and manifest their talents, that’s really the big piece of what works,” Shaw said.

Of the 2,000 students, one in five was homeless. 39 percent come from households with domestic abuse. Half come from households with drug and alcohol issues. That includes Eli’s home.

“Growing up I was — because of environmental situations I was in — I was a pretty angry child. Coming to Milton Hershey, I’ve learned how to be happy and to appreciate all of the little things that happen in life,” Coniff said.

Both of Eli’s parents were addicts. They had no money. He barely had clothes and often didn’t know when his next meal was coming. The family often lived without electricity.

“It’s hard to learn to read when you’re at home struggling over whether you’re going to have another meal or not,” he said.

At MHS, he got food, clothes, structure and house parents.

Providing that to thousands of students costs. MHS spends $85,000 per student per year. In comparison, the Harrisburg School District spends $10,500.

The school also saves the state a mint because it provides students with health insurance.

It pays off; test scores are above the state average.

As for Eli, this fall, he’ll be in the Ivy League. He was admitted to the famed Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

After graduation, MHS doesn’t just cut students loose. Eli will get $90,000 a year for college. Some students get more and some get less.

As Milton Hershey said, a family’s income should not determine a child’s outcome.

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