"These [children] must grow up with a feeling that they have a real home." - Milton S. Hershey

To help students, consider a Hershey-Girard campus

Philly.com By John W. Schmehl and F. Frederic Fouad
Posted: June 14, 2013

Upon his death in 1831, Stephen A. Girard, industrialist and philanthropist, endowed Philadelphia's Girard College with what was then the largest private charitable donation in U.S. history. Pursuant to the era's thinking on social problems, the facility housed and educated white male orphans, enabling them to achieve more productive lives. In 1968, the college was opened to minorities after a long legal struggle led by William T. Coleman Jr. of the law firm Dilworth Paxson, founded by a legendary reformist Philadelphia mayor.

Milton S. Hershey, industrialist and philanthropist, similarly established the Milton Hershey School in 1909, with the same racial/gender restrictions in a deed of trust modeled after Girard's. Hershey endowed his orphanage with his entire chocolate company holdings, which were worth $60 million in 1918. A marker on Spring Garden Street in Philadelphia identifies the location of his first candy business, the Spring Garden Confectionery Works. Enrollment evolution at Girard influenced the Hershey School to open itself to minorities as well. Thereafter, Hershey preceded Girard in enrolling girls. Over time, the two facilities have evolved, and failed to evolve, in parallel.

But while Girard's financial fortunes have stumbled, Hershey's have soared. Today, Girard's endowment has shrunk to $230 million. Conversely, Hershey's assets now exceed $10.5 billion, primarily due to the holdings of Hershey Co., the founder's own creation. These opposite trends present a historic opportunity to boldly advance the work of both facilities.

Girard has just announced that it must scale back its curriculum to grades 1-8 and close its residential program. This was coupled with Hershey's announcing that it will expedite applications from Girard students affected by the closure of grades 9 through 12. Is there not a better and more creative way to respond?

Paradoxically, Girard's urban dorm closure is a forward fumble: While finances may have driven the decision, the best child-welfare practices would have long since advised the same anyway. For poverty alone is understood to no longer serve as grounds for residential placement. Why make students accept such when all they seek is quality education? Hershey statistics well illustrate this.

Consider that Hershey, spending a fantastic $100,000 per child annually, is still losing more than one child every school day to attrition, far more than graduate. The total annual cost of children needlessly hurt? $25 million.

Hershey says these students are homesick. Of course they are: Hershey is stuck in a time warp, expensively and irrationally relocating poor children to a K-12 residential setting as a condition of providing them with an education. Virtually none of these students are foster-care children or wards of the court. So why force them into group-home settings?

Hershey has talked about pilot programs to address its high attrition problem, but they have been designed and implemented by individuals with questionable qualifications. Case in point: an intake facility, "Springboard Academy," that housed children in 20-child bedrooms, and that flopped after $40 million was squandered on it.

Child-welfare professionals would have pointed out the obvious: Given the type of students Hershey is now enrolling, why not just educate them in their home communities, at a fraction of the cost, and with outcomes that all data show will dwarf what Hershey achieves?

In other words, rather than enroll Girard's K-12 students at Hershey, at a cost of $100,000 per child annually, why not direct some of Hershey's $10.5 billion to keep Girard's high school open and serve Philadelphia children in their home community? This would cost about $20,000 per student, and would occur in a setting that makes eminently more sense socially as well as economically.

Milton Hershey's desire to educate poor children was neither restricted to Hershey, Pa., nor imprisoned by retrograde thinking: He built an even larger orphanage in Cuba, where he had sugar interests, and he always sought to implement cutting-edge programs for his wards. It is inconceivable that he would today stubbornly insist on primitive and demonstrably failing policies or a Derry Township geographic restriction.

The Hershey Trust must take a genuinely innovative step to address its soaring attrition problem. It should endow a "Milton Hershey School Girard College Campus." This will preserve Girard's history, expand its own reach, use Milton Hershey's assets more effectively, and start catching the school up to the rest of the child-welfare world. The fit is so natural and obvious as to command genuine consideration. It can also restore some of the luster Hershey has lost due to its extravagant waste. Indeed, the compensation that Hershey board members pay themselves could pay for 40 children annually at a new Hershey-Girard campus. The $25 million spent annually on removed Hershey children could pay for 1,250 Hershey-Girard students.

With the assistance of the attorney general and Orphans' Court, Hershey could make a meaningful difference to hundreds of poor Philadelphia children, at the least financial cost and without the emotional damage of wrenching children from their families and communities.

Challenging times invite creative solutions and can even yield progress. Girard's difficulties allow Hershey to take a leap forward in evolving its core mission, joining the fortunes of two singular child-welfare philanthropies. Milton S. Hershey and Stephen A. Girard would accept nothing less.

John W. Schmehl ( jschmehl@dilworthlaw.com) is a partner at Dilworth Paxson and the son of a Hershey alumnus.
F. Frederic Fouad ( ricfouad@gmail.com) is the president of Protect the Hersheys' Children and a Hershey alumnus. He can be followed on Twitter at @ricfouad.