When she was in seventh grade, Alyson McAtee of Homewood volunteered as a tutor with the Salvation Army, where she learned about a private school that would challenge her academically and provide her with housing, books and even clothing.
It was like finding the golden ticket in the chocolate bar — a Hershey chocolate bar.
The school is the Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pa. Founded in 1909, it is a free, private, co-educational home and school for children from low-income families who have limited resources.
A family event for prospective students will be held at 6 p.m. next Thursday at Bella Luna Trattoria, 5060 William Penn Highway, Monroeville. No registration is necessary.
The school is funded by a trust established by entrepreneur and philanthropist Milton S. Hershey and his wife Catherine, who had no children of their own.
It offers a positive, structured home life year-round and education for children pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.
The school’s vision focuses on building character and providing children with the skills necessary to be successful in life.
When she learned about the school, Alyson was attending Pittsburgh Classical Academy, part of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, in the West End. She said she immediately told her parents about the Milton Hershey School. After meeting all of the entrance criteria, she was accepted and moved to the Hershey campus at the beginning of eighth grade.
Now 17 and a senior, she is set to graduate from Milton Hershey School this year and go to college, with her undergraduate costs covered by continuing education funds through the Milton Hershey School, federal and state grants, and a scholarship from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. She plans to study international relations.
About 150 of the nearly 1,900 students at the school are from the Greater Pittsburgh area, according to Scott Gregory, one of seven admissions counselors for the school. The school has students enrolled from 30 states. Preference is given to children born in Pennsylvania, under the trust set up by the Hersheys.
The school will hold about 60 family events for prospective students as far south as Washington, D.C., and throughout the New England area.
The school turns away more students than it accepts, he said. Each year, about 8,000 inquiries are received. Of those, 2,000 to 3,000 submit completed applications, and 400 to 450 students are accepted. Children live in student homes with a set of house parents.
Living away from home didn’t deter Alyson. She acknowledged that she was homesick a few times, but she knew she really wanted this experience. She also had the opportunity to study abroad in South America for 11 months, expenses paid.
“Some students choose to leave due to homesickness. More often, though, it’s homesickness on the parents’ part. One of things the family has to deal with will be missing the child at the dinner table each night,” Mr. Gregory said.
The school's schedule is similar to a college schedule, with longer breaks at Christmas and Easter for the students to return home. Visitation is on Saturdays and Sundays, and students typically can go home once a month.
Retention at the school is about 90 percent, Mr. Gregory said. Some students leave due to homesickness and some are asked to leave if they are making bad choices.
The criteria for acceptance include: children must be between the ages of 4 and 15, come from a low-income family, have the ability to learn, be free from serious emotional and behavioral problems, be able to participate in the school’s program and be born in the United States.
The kids don’t need to be academic superstars, but they need to have average capability in a regular education classroom, Mr. Gregory said.
The school is not designed for kids involved in the juvenile justice system.
“We are looking for good kids who want something different and families that are willing to sacrifice today for the benefits tomorrow,” Mr. Gregory said.
At the end of fourth grade and eighth grade, students change homes as they move from elementary to middle school and then from middle school to high school.
For seniors, transitional living is available in suite-style apartments with an adult resident adviser to assist them in making good decisions and help prepare them for life outside of school. Students do their own meal preparation, laundry and banking in addition to their schoolwork.
Only students who are seniors are permitted to have cell phones, providing they can pay for them, and social media not is available to students until they reach high school.
According to information from the school, 56 percent of Milton Hershey School graduates earn a degree within six years as opposed to 40 percent of post-graduate students from low-income backgrounds.
What would Alyson say to a student considering applying to the school?
“Don’t be afraid of missing friends and family. You will come to learn that if those friends are really your friends, they will be there when you graduate. And your family will hopefully always be supportive and you will in time have the opportunity to give back to them. Don’t worry about what you think you are missing out, because you get so much in return.”
Information: 1-800-322-3248 or www.mhs-pa.org.
Jill Thurston, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.