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Meritocracy at the Milton Hershey School - 2002-10-27

Americans like to talk a lot about opportunity. After all, this nation was founded on the principle of meritocracy. America was supposed to be a place where everyone could realize his or her potential, so the most creative, talented, and intelligent people would rise to the top and lead the nation. But it hasn't always worked out that way. Realities such as race and class can influence who gets to realize his or her potential, and who doesn't. Federal legislation has helped ease racial inequalities and some people are making efforts to counteract the impact of class. VOA's Maura Farrelly takes us to a school in Pennsylvania, where one man's vision of meritocracy has become a reality.

The Milton Hershey School is a bustling, thoroughly modern educational facility, nestled in the heart of 3,600 hectares of pristine Pennsylvania farmland. The school, opened in 1909, was the vision of Milton Hershey. Several years earlier, this founder of a multi-billion dollar candy empire had made chocolate a delicacy even poor Americans could afford. And it was these same poor Americans the candy magnate had in mind when he chartered his school.

Today, it's home to more than 1,300 children and teenagers, like 18-year-old Anthony Coughlin, who was born in Philadelphia. "My mother and my father were never married, and my mother had eight other kids, so I'm one of nine. And I have one full-sister, the rest are all half. My full-sister went away," he says. "She went to a detention center, so I haven't talked to her in a long, long time. My mother never really took care of any of us, so we all went with different family members. And I went with my father's mother, while my mother and father, they kind of went their separate ways. Separate from each other, and separate from the family."

Anthony Coghlin's story is not unusual. Most of the children at the Milton Hershey School have been removed from their biological parents' custody at one point or another, because of neglect or abuse. Many students have one or both parents in jail. And all of the kids are poor. In order to attend the Milton Hershey School, a child must be living near the federally established poverty level. But once accepted, the student's needs are completely taken care of by the school.

The child moves into a home on the school's campus and lives with a married couple and nine other students. Food, clothing, medical care, and educational expenses are paid for, and if the child decides to go to college after graduation, that expense is assumed by the Milton Hershey School, too. It's all thanks to a trust set up by the chocolate pioneer almost a century ago, a fund which today totals more than $5 billion.

But school administrator Warren Hitz is quick to point out that the money doesn't give the children any guarantees, just opportunities for stability, support, and an education. "What we have here is an opportunity to present doors to other opportunities for our students that may not exist in their life if they did not have the chance to come to Milton Hershey School. Other students, other young people at other places may well have those opportunities simply by the virtue of the circumstances that have happened in their life," he says. "And for those students that come to Milton Hershey School, we want to try to eliminate some of those obstacles that may have caused them to go a different direction."

A "different direction" that could lead to crime, drug abuse, and teenaged pregnancy. These are the paths that 17-year-old Ansley Watson says her parents, and some of her older sibling followed. "I've always been motivated by the situation that I was in. So what I wanted to end up being was not what my parents were," she says. "Always feeling like they could be doing better. My father is kind know. He's is jail right now. And my mom has disabilities. She has bi-polar depression. So, I don't want to be as weak as I think they are."

Today, Ansley Watson is looking forward to graduating from the Milton Hershey School in June, and going on to college, to major in biologymaybe at Dartmouth University, in New Hampshire, she says. After a summer internship the school arranged at a nearby medical center, Ansley thinks she might want to be a doctor.

Her classmate, Anthony Coughlin, is considering a career in graphic design. He says he never would have thought he could do something like that, if he hadn't come to the Milton Hershey School. "I can't think of a better place to be than here. 'Cause if I was at home, I don't know if, you know, if I'd be involved in anything, or if I'd be in the wrong crowd, or…all I can think to say is that it's not like any other place. It's a land of opportunity, within a land of opportunity, in terms of America."

Milton Hershey School administrators hope to give more children opportunities in the coming years. They plan to increase the school's enrollment to 1,500 students by 2006.