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Catherine Hershey Schools leader outlines its vision for early childhood education (video)

Senate Alexander (inset), is executive director of Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning. The main image is a rendering of the nonprofit’s planned Lancaster city site at the corner of Walnut and Plum streets. (Sources: OUL | Provided)

The Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning aim to be transformative, Executive Director Senate Alexander said: For the children who attend, for their families and for the community at large.

Alexander offered an overview of the nonprofit and its goals at Hourglass’ February First Friday Forum. He said his team is excited to introduce the Catherine Hershey Schools’ early childhood education model to Lancaster County and is eager to establish partnerships with local schools and nonprofits.

Video: February 2024 Hourglass First Friday Forum

A $350 million rollout

Established in 2020, Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning are an offshoot of the Milton Hershey School, named for the chocolatier’s beloved wife, Catherine “Kitty” Hershey. The organization is in the process of opening six schools, three each in Dauphin and Lancaster counties, where it will offer free high-quality early childhood education to children aged 6 weeks to 5 years. Total cost of the rollout: $350 million.

Each school will serve about 150 children. Households with incomes up to 350% of the federal poverty line are eligible, Alexander said.

The first location, in Hershey, opened last fall. The other two Dauphin County sites, in Harrisburg and Middletown, are to open in 2024 and 2025, respectively.

The former Lancaster Mennonite School at New Danville. (Source: LMS)

The three Lancaster County sites are to open in 2026. Unlike the Dauphin County schools, which are new construction, in Lancaster County the nonprofit is renovating existing buildings and returning them to active use: the former Rheems Elementary School near Elizabethtown, the Lancaster Mennonite School’s former New Danville Campus; and a cluster of partly remodeled former warehouse buildings at the corner of Plum and Walnut streets in Lancaster.

The land development plan for the Lancaster site is coming before the Planning Commission for conditional approval on Wednesday, city Chief Planner Douglas Smith said.

The former Rheems Elementary School. (Source: CHS)

Milton Hershey started his confectionary career in Lancaster and founded the Lancaster Caramel Co. before moving to Dauphin County to establish his namesake enterprise. Setting up shop in Lancaster County thus represents a homecoming of sorts for Catherine Hershey Schools, Alexander said.

Each school will primarily serve children in the school district in which it’s based, he told One United Lancaster. Schools make their own admission decisions based on the nonprofit’s guidelines; admissions are based on a range of factors, including families’ level of need and commitment to the program, their children’s potential to benefit and the goal of creating a diverse, well-rounded student body.

Four pillars

At the school in Hershey that’s up and running, 80% of pupils did not otherwise have access to early childhood education, he said. As for their families, 77% fall within the United Way’s “ALICE” classification — families headed by working adults who don’t earn enough to ensure financial stability.

The educational approach is based on four “pillars,” he said:

  • High quality curriculum and programming;
  • Intensive wraparound support, including health and nutrition monitoring and early intervention to address any developmental needs such as speech therapy;
  • Intensive family support, including home visits and family goal-setting (provided through a fully staffed Family Success Center at each site);
  • Rigorous tracking of outcomes.

CHS’ facilities are open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, freeing up parents during typical daytime work hours. So far, just in the few months the Hershey site has been open, 34 parents and relatives of children enrolled there have been able to move to fulltime jobs, Alexander said.

Senate Alexander, left, speaks about the expansion of Catherine Hershey Schools into Lancaster County during a reception at Eden Resort & Suites on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022. Looking on are Pete Gurt, president of Milton Hershey School and Catherine Hershey Schools, and Mayor Danene Sorace. (Source: Catherine Hershey Schools)

Statewide and nationwide, early childhood education providers are facing acute staffing shortages. Without subsidies, many struggle to bridge the gap between paying qualified staff enough to retain them and keeping programs affordable for parents.

Catherine Hershey Schools pay a little more than average, Alexander, within the framework of a model that’s financially sustainable.

About 80 employees will staff each school, including educators, administrators, health and social services staff and building operations staff. Professional staff go through nearly a year of preparatory work before they start: That’s one of the ways the organization is laying the groundwork for strong outcomes, Alexander said.

Demand is high. The Hershey site received 1,400 applications for its 150 placements; the portal for the Harrisburg site received more than 800 applications in the first few days after opening in mid-January. The nonprofit tries to make referrals to other programs for the many students it has to turn down, Alexander said.

It is partnering with a number of outside organizations, including Penn State Health, COBYS Family Services, and two central Pennsylvania institutions of higher education: Messiah University in Mechanicsburg and Elizabethtown College.

Recognizing the need to expand the number of early childhood teachers, it has opened some of its professional development events to outside educators, Alexander said. In 2023, it held an industry summit that it plans to make annual.

Asked if the Catherine Hershey Schools could grow the early childhood education system by subsidizing training or underwriting other providers, Alexander said that’s not an option: The deed through which Milton and Catherine Hershey established the Hershey Trust, which funds Milton Hershey School and its new offshoot, does not allow the trust to make grants.