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Boarding School as Last Refuge
By Karen-Louise Boothe
February 11, 1998
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Governor Carlson's $12 million bonding proposal to fund boarding schools got another hearing at the capitol February 11. The schools would serve "at risk" juveniles who have had no major criminal problems. The proposal for Minnesota may be modeled after the Milton-Hershey School in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

HOUSE SPEAKER NEWT GINGRICH sparked debate over so-called residential education programs in 1994 when he suggested placing poor children in orphanages.

Critics recalled images of mistreated street urchins in the film Oliver Twist while supporters praised the model as portrayed in the film classic Boys Town, about the work of the Reverend Edward J. Flanagan in Nebraska.

Neither story line plays out at the Milton-Hershey School. The school was founded in 1909 by Milton S. Hershey, of Hershey chocolate fame.

Today it thrives thanks to a lifetime trust fund that supports cost-free education, health care, and housing for more than one thousand boys and girls in pre-kindergarten through the 12th grade.

The students' parents voluntarily enroll them in the school. A majority come from single-parent households, usually headed by women. Almost half are African Amercian and some 42 percent are white. Most are from Pennsylvania. They appear to be like average students, but all are considered to be "at risk." They come from households living at or below the poverty line. They were sent here to escape problems of drugs, gangs, and abuse.

Governor Carlson wants a school like this in Minnesota to prevent troubling situtations from creating troubled children.

Elementary School Principal Dr Sandra Barnes: You're not just thinking academics, you're thinking healthy lifestyles, you think of community needs. Because we're a residential program, we have the opportunity to be holistic because we have the students 24 hours. They're like sponges; they soak up everything - and when you put them in an environment like this, they just grow, they just blossom.

But life with a surrogate family, and houseparents hired by the school is not always easy for students like a 13-year-old we'll call Jeff. Jeff casts his eyes downward and twists his fingers when he explains how his parents enrolled him and his brothers at Milton-Hershey because they didn't have the money to raise them.

Jeff: It's hard to be away from home. It's a relief to know there's someone here you can always go to and ask advice for. When my mom and dad realized it was time to send their kids away, they got emotional...but here I am. I keep telling my parents if they move away from home, to come down here, but I don't know, it's just hard to be away from home.

Like Jeff, 13-year-old Adam misses home, too, but he appears more upbeat and resilient.

Adam: Yeah, but my mom doesn't like the bad environment I was from...because of all the gangs and stuff. She wants me to grow up to be a fine young gentleman, so she put me here.

High school students seem to fare a little better than some of the middle school students. 19-year-old Tom Sansom is from the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington. His mother enrolled him at Milton-Hershey School when he was a freshman. He guesses what his life would be like if he were still at home in Minnesota.

Sansom: I'd be going to a public school right now. I probably wouldn't be getting good grades.

Sansom says it's not that he'd be getting into trouble with the law, it's just that the program offers him the stability of a good home.

Sansom: Because there's always a houseparent to tell you to do your homework, and there's always someone in the student home or in the school to keep you on track.

Sansom says the resources at the school outshine those of most public schools. He points to the school's automotive shop where teachers give students the chance to tear apart cars and then rebuild them.

Sansom will graduate this spring and hopes to go on to college next fall to study either English literature or photojournalism. And Sansom has yet another incentive to do well: if he graduates from Milton-Hershey with a good grade point average, he'll earn scholarship money for college.

Dr. Mavis Kelley is the school's senior vice president. She says orphanages in the US were first built to house children abandoned by war, health epidemics and poverty. Today's plagues, she says, are abuse, drugs, and AIDS, and supporters of residential schools recognize them as one solution.

Kelley: I hope it's an agenda for children - a reawaknening of a children's agenda that's been somewhat neglected over the last ten years. I think it's a growing awareness and maybe a growing willingness of people to step forward and say children are our future, and we need to better address their issues.

Kelley says 80 percent of the graduates go on to college, five percent into the military, and five percent move right into a job. Another ten percent go untracked. She says if states like Minnesota can learn from the Milton-Hershey model, then she and other school administrators will be more than happy to share their successes.

Supporters of schools like Milton-Hershey say such programs can provide a sense of permanence at a time when the current foster-care system, clogged with over 500,000 children nationwide, is seen as a colossal failure. Yet the prevailing view among child welfare advocates is that residential schools should be viewed with a good dose of skepticism. Many perceive them as damaging to young psyches.

Former Minnesota Viking Joe Senser disagrees. He's one of Milton-Hershey's more well-known graduates. His father died when he was young and his mother decided to send him and his brother to Milton-Hershey. Senser says he was definitely "at risk" of slipping through the cracks at the age of eleven.

Senser: Having gone to that school at that right timing kind of set me straight in the sense of knowing right from wrong and getting me off the streets. And I think that's the most important thing: getting kids off the streets and away from the peer pressure they're under.

Senser hopes legislative debate over the issue doesn't become too politicized - saying the state leaders need to agree that the agenda is driven by what's best for children.

Last week a group of Minnesota lawmakers toured the school. There's a fare share of bi-partisan support for the idea at the legislature. But some lawmakers worry about the state's ability to supply long-term funding for a program which can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000 per student each year. The funding proposal for residential education gets a hearing today in the Senate K-12 Committee.