Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning (CHS) plans to open three early childhood education centers in Lancaster County by 2026.
The cost-free centers for children from birth to age five will be built in Lancaster City, New Danville and Elizabethtown, Peter Gurt, president of Milton Hershey School (MHS) and CHS, told a crowd of more than 150 child advocates and local dignitaries at the Eden Resorts & Suites in Lancaster Thursday.
The three centers are part of a $350 million initiative to develop six sites as subsidiaries of MH.
Gurt said each site will offer non-residential, year-round programs for 150 children from economically disadvantaged and at-risk backgrounds focused on educational, social and emotional development.
The initiative began in September 2020 with plans for three schools in Dauphin County, with one in Hershey slated to open next year, one in Harrisburg in 2024 and one in Middletown in 2025.
“It is my pledge that we will give the same quality care to these centers as we do in Hershey and partner with you to support and enhance the work you are doing,” he said to the crowd of child advocates.
The New Danville site will be at the former Lancaster Mennonite School on Long Lane and the Elizabethtown center will be located near Beverly Road and Route 743. The Lancaster city site has not been determined to date.
Gurt said the sites were chosen, not only based on need, but the connection to Milton and Catherine Hershey.
Milton Hershey grew up in Bart Township and many of his family members are buried in New Danville, Gurt said. Catherine Hershey volunteered at the former St. Joseph’s Hospital in Lancaster and served as an inaugural member of the Lancaster Charity Society. They both were involved with Franklin & Marshall College, he said.
Milton Hershey started his candy business in Lancaster as the Lancaster Caramel Co. before moving to Hershey. He founded MHS in 1909.
Gurt, who is a graduate of the Milton Hershey School, said, “the school transformed my life and the life of my family with quality education, enrichment and support.”
The mission of CHS, he said, is to change intergenerational poverty. “We have found that students who enroll the earliest have the greatest success.”
Senate Alexander, executive director of CHS, who is also an alumnus of MHS, said, “Early childhood education has long been undervalued as was highlighted during the pandemic. The gap between low-income students and high-income students was great.”
The new schools, he said, will increase literacy and graduation rates, which have been shown to decrease criminal activity and the likelihood of negative consequences.
In addition to the focus on education and social and emotional development, Alexander said the schools will provide meals, transportation and support services to families of enrolled students.
“We want to break the cycle of poverty,” he said.
Alexander emphasized that the schools will work in collaboration with existing organizations to empower families and their children. “We can’t achieve this alone,” he said.
Lancaster Mayor Danene Sorace said as a mayor and a mom, she has seen children that start “behind the line.”
“We are advocates for all families and their children,” she said. “We see what families are up against every day.”
Sorace said the city and county have an “incredible” gift that will have a ripple effect through the community.
Addressing the audience, she said, “Your work is not unneeded. This puts wind in your sails,” referring to the work other agencies are doing.
“The ripple effect of this will strengthen our economy, grow businesses and create successful kids,” she said.
While the school is still looking at potential sites, Gurt said Kresta Horn will be the director of the New Danville site and Luanne Gould will lead the Elizabethtown site. The search is still ongoing for the head of the Lancaster city site, he said.