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At Hershey School, Life-Skills Training Meets Senior Year

After listening to alumni about their experience after graduation, administrators at the Milton Hershey School introduced more practical life-skills training into its programming for high school seniors.

The school serves 1,800 students with limited resources and significant social needs from pre-K through 12th grade, who live on campus in group homes with house parents. The school was established in 1909 by the chocolate giant Milton Hershey to provide free education and support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The school's senior division (grades 9-12) has a good record of getting students on a path for postsecondary life—94 percent of graduates go on to a four-year or technical college. But looking at the track record of alumni, persistence rates in college weren't as high as school administrators would have liked. So, they began to investigate ways to change the curriculum.

In 2006, the school started a pilot program to equip seniors with time- and money-management skills needed to life independently, says Jim Case, associate director for transitional living at the school, located in Hershey, Pa. Now the program is required for all seniors and it has helped improve college retention.

Hershey renovated 10 buildings on campus into apartments for groups of four students to share. The students must learn to live within a budget, including using a limited debit card to do some of their own grocery shopping and cooking. There is less oversight with their schedules, but two adults also live in the building to serve as mentors and provide some direction.

"It's an experiential-learning environment," says Case. "The students learn by doing and if they have failure, we can teach in the moment. It's important that kids skin their knee, reflect on it, learn from it, internalize it and carry on."

The transitional living program includes instruction on healthy eating, how to read labels and be smart consumers. Each apartment building is assigned a vehicle for the students to check out to go shopping. (Click here for a video clip of students shopping and talking about the value of the program.)

Surveys of students before and after the program demonstrate the approach is working, says Case. And persistence rates have bumped up from 19 to 34 percent—a level which is better than expected for students below the poverty level in college.

The school is constantly going back to students to ask them about gaps in their preparation and what is needed to improve the transitional living program. Case credits the success of the program to alumni guiding the process of building the curriculum from the bottom up. While graduates would say their experience at Hershey was often great, they also admitted the house parents did too much for them and they needed help with basics, such as managing money.

When seniors first enter the program, Case says it can be difficult to adjust to the responsibility. "There are some growing pains. But when they do it on their own, they gain that confidence - that is something they will never lose."

Experts say one of the keys to moving the needle on college completion is for schools and community organizations to integrate more non-cognitive, life skills into college- and career-readiness curriculum. (See related story: Soft Skills Pushed as Part of College Readiness.)

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