Work is advancing on plans for the Catherine Hershey School Lancaster, one of three such schools planned to open in Lancaster County.
The Lancaster City location at the corner of North Plum and East Walnut streets will join sister schools in Elizabethtown and New Danville, with all three scheduled to open beginning in 2026.
There are also three sites in Dauphin County: The flagship location in Hershey, which opened in October, and schools set to open in Harrisburg and Middletown in 2024 and 2025, respectively.
Like the Milton Hershey School, the Catherine Hershey Schools will be free. Unlike the Milton Hershey School’s residential model, children will attend the early childhood education centers Monday through Friday, returning home to their families each evening.
The expansion into Lancaster County was announced a year ago, in November 2022.
“The Catherine Hershey Schools have been created to break the cycle of generational poverty,” said Executive Director Senate Alexander — who is himself a graduate of the Milton Hershey School.
Rebekah Benedum, Senior Director of Programs, describes the model as following “whole child” and “family success” approaches, integrating quality education with comprehensive family services.
“Nutritious meals, transportation, and all personal items will be provided at no cost to families,” she explained.
The six-school buildout will cost about $350 million. The organization has not provided a breakdown for individual schools.
The curriculum is play-based, designed to engage very young children and create learning opportunities organically. On-site facilities will include outdoor play areas, STEM gardens, rooms for building gross motor skills, and innovation stations.
Students’ families will have access to Family Success Advocates, social workers who will be available during school hours to provide services including GED access and tutoring, job training, health care referrals and help with food insecurity.
“Given that we’re not a residential school, and that children will be going home every single day, we have to wrap around the families as well,” Alexander explained.
Teachers and staff enroll in a year-long paid professional development program before their employment begins. Local teachers from the Derry Township, Palmyra and Lower Dauphin school districts participated in the training period leading up to the opening of the Hershey branch.
After leaving Catherine Hershey Schools, children will in many cases enroll in their local public schools. So, it is vital to work with local and neighboring school districts, Alexander said; for example, to ensure shared expectations on kindergarten preparedness.
He also emphasized the importance of partnering with local nonprofits to provide children and their families with every opportunity possible.
To build those relationships, Benedum reported, her team has met with organizations including Lancaster City Alliance, Cobys Family Services and The Factory Ministries, as well as the School District of Lancaster and Manheim Township School District.
Lancaster’s Catherine Hershey School will be built at the site of Tobacco Avenue, a residential and commercial mixed-use redevelopment project that stalled out a couple of years ago. The Catherine Hershey Schools acquired the property for $8.5 million last December.
Early this month, the nonprofit gave a preliminary presentation to the Lancaster City Planning Commission. Led by RGS Associates’ Ben Morton, it covered a standard array of issues like stormwater management, tree planting and traffic patterns.
The commission is charged with reviewing and approving subdivision and land development plans. It will take action once Catherine Hershey Schools formally submits its complete plan, which is expected next year.
Alexander said the Tobacco Avenue site poses some unique challenges, including green space — the site at present is mostly a paved parking lot — and transportation, given that many the children will come from families who don’t have cars.
While some parking will be provided on site, staff will park offsite, at 226 N. Ann St. Security and safety concerns may entail gated access to the school, the Planning Commission was told.
Chocolatier Milton Hershey founded his namesake school in 1909. In its original deed, he stipulated that students from Lebanon, Dauphin and Lancaster Counties be given special consideration when applying.
The locations of the six new Catherine Hershey Schools were chosen in observance of that stipulation, while also addressing the region’s most pressing childcare and early childhood education needs, Alexander explained.