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Milton Hershey School | Part 2

Last time in these pages I began a review of a recent book, Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in an American City. Its author, Andrea Elliott, focused on a middle school girl named Dasani, who grew up in a series of New York City housing projects, a step away from homelessness.

After Elliott published an expose in the New York Times on Dasani’s plight, the girl was awarded a scholarship to attend Milton Hershey’s middle school, in Hershey, Pennsylvania. She arrived at the private school in late January of 2015, as a 14-year-old African-American girl, lonely and scared.

Right away she began to experience success.

With the help of tutors, her grades improved to A’s and B’s. She found a spot on the school’s track team, and also on its cheerleading squad. She was freed of that chronic fear for her personal safety when on the street, and of the obligation to scrounge for food for her six younger siblings.

Instead, Milton Hershey provided her a more nutritious menu—salads, fruits, vegetables, nuts—rather than the chips, sodas, and fast food, that she had eaten at home.

Milton Hershey provided her with better quality clothing—khaki slacks, tennis shoes, polo shirts, sweaters, and blazers—rather than the jeans, t-shirts and flip-flops she had worn at home.

In addition, her houseparents and teachers worked to correct her language, to lay aside her street talk. Instead of saying, “what they feedin’ you?”, they urged her to say, “What are they feeding you?”

Dasani found this change in language disconcerting when she talked on the phone with her siblings back home, who taunted her, “You sound so white now,” and “You talking with some class now.” She did not know if she liked this language barrier that now stood between herself and her siblings.

Milton Hershey’s houseparents set Dasani on a predictable routine: “rise by 5:30 a.m., off to school at 7:30 a.m., dinner at 6:00 p.m., and lights out at 9 p.m.” They taught her to use knife, fork, and spoon, when eating, and not to fear that someone would steal food off her plate.

In addition, they asked her to apologize for her mistakes, to express gratitude when treated well, to steer away from fights, and to know that these actions do not make her appear weak.

The “soft skills” that Milton Hershey’s officials teach—communicating well with others, resolving conflicts, and expressing empathy—are different than the skills the students bring with them.

One official says, “They are primed for anything to go wrong at any moment, making them hyper-vigilant and distrustful of other people. They continually scan the horizon for threats.”

In early April, Dasani returned home for a visit. At once, Elliott writes, Dasani is back to swearing, “sleeping late and scarfing hot chili pepper and lime tortilla chips. It took no time at all. The return to Hershey is never easy.”

Mr. McQuiddy, Dasani’s housefather, greets Dasani, and his other students back to Milton with a plate of lasagna. He says, “Many of them haven’t eaten in the last five days and haven’t slept in the last five days.” Dasani dissolves into tears that night and many more, thinking about her fractured family.

In June 2015, Dasani graduates from Milton Hershey Middle School, but remains in summer school. In August, she enrolls in her ninth grade at Milton Hershey High School.

On October 9, the school’s officials call her away from a movie to explain her family’s bad news. On October 6, a judge authorized the Administration for Children’s Services to remove Dasani’s siblings from their home, citing poor conditions. Her brothers and sisters were now in the custody of the ACS.”

Three months later, on January 9, 2016, Dasani “loses control of her body,” and attacks another girl following a heated argument. Another fight breaks out on March 14. Milton Hershey school officials place her in detention, and try to curb her aggressive responses to disrespect with a behavior plan.

On May 24, Chanel, her mother, whom she has not seen for six months, shows up at the school for a quick visit, and in late November, during her sophomore year, Dasani goes home for Thanksgiving.

Dasani returns, but continues to break school rules, although “she goes on to earn A’s in five classes, including law and business.” She is not lacking intelligence, just unable to control her rage. Her final fight occurs on February 28, 2017, the day the school discharges her.

Back in New York City, Dasani discovers that her family has disintegrated, split apart. Yet, she continues to strive, as she says, to “move forward and change my actions.” In 2019, she receives a high school diploma, “the first child in her family to graduate.”

What does Dasani’s story tell us? That poverty is insidious, that it tears families apart, that family pulls at us wherever we are, that you can take a child out of a family, but that it is more difficult to pull a family out of the child.

Also, that Milton Hershey’s $17 billion endowment cannot stop a teenaged girl from wanting to see and spend time with her mother, brothers, and sisters, no matter their poverty, their homeless condition, their drug and alcohol addictions, or their trouble with the law.