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From the Perspective of CHS’ First Center Director

Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning (CHS) is opening six Early Childhood Education Centers as part of Milton Hershey School’s $350 million initiative to improve the lives of children from under-resourced and over-burdened backgrounds in Pennsylvania. We caught up with Center Director Melissa Ilski ahead of the opening of the first one, CHS Hershey, in the fall.

Melissa Ilski, CHS Hershey Center Director

What brought you to this point?

My journey to this point has been a path of continuous learning and growth. It all started in Houston, TX, where I taught in a Pre-K classroom at an inner-city public school for seven years. Then I had the opportunity to launch a new Pre-K classroom at a Catholic school in Conroe, TX.

During my years as an educator, I recognized the significance of educational leadership in making a broader impact. Eager to expand my knowledge and influence, I pursued higher education, earning a Master’s in Educational Administration and obtaining a Principal Certification. This enabled me to step into the role of assistant principal, and eventually principal, where I devoted ten years to nurturing the growth and development of a Catholic school in Houston, TX.

As I continue to believe in the power of leadership and strategic thinking, I am currently pursuing a Doctorate in Strategic Leadership. This educational pursuit aligns with my dedication to driving positive change and making a meaningful difference in the lives of children and families.

The experiences and knowledge gained along this journey have culminated in bringing me to this point, leading CHS Hershey with enthusiasm and a firm commitment to fostering a nurturing and empowering environment for all involved.

What is your role at CHS?

As the center director for the first CHS center, my role is multifaceted. I am responsible for leading and guiding a dedicated team of 80 staff members, ensuring they are equipped to provide the best care and education for up to 150 children at our center.

In addition to the day-to-day operations, I have the privilege of being the strategic leader for CHS Hershey. This involves shaping the vision and direction of our center, aligning our efforts with the broader goals of the organization, and constantly seeking innovative ways to enhance our services.

Furthermore, I am actively involved as a thought partner in developing initiatives for the entire CHS organization. Collaborating with others to pioneer new approaches and programs enables us to continually evolve and stay at the forefront of early childhood education.

Overall, my role is dedicated to ensuring the success and well-being of our staff, children, and families while also contributing to the overarching mission of CHS to create a positive and lasting impact in the communities we serve.

Why are you passionate about CHS?

I am deeply passionate about CHS because I firmly believe in its potential to make a meaningful impact on the lives of families. I am driven to support and develop the incredible staff here, empowering them to become leaders and partners in transforming the early childhood education landscape. My passion lies in shifting the lens of ECE from its current state to a future where it can reach its full potential, making a lasting difference in the lives of children and their families.

What’s your approach to building a team?

My approach to building a team is rooted in collaboration and mutual respect. I prioritize fostering a culture where my staff feels valued and supported, knowing that I genuinely believe in their abilities. By nurturing an environment of open communication and mutual respect, I strive to ensure that each team member feels valued and heard. I encourage autonomy and try to provide the necessary resources for them to excel in their roles. Ultimately, my goal is to create a culture where team members feel empowered to take ownership of their work, make informed decisions, and contribute meaningfully to our shared goals.

What makes CHS team members special and unique? 

What truly sets our team apart is our unwavering commitment and personalized approach. Each team member brings a unique set of skills, experiences, and genuine compassion to their role, creating a diverse and enriching environment.

We prioritize building strong relationships with both children and families, fostering a sense of trust and open communication. Our team’s dedication to understanding the individual needs of each child allows us to tailor our care and support to ensure their well-being and development.

Above all, it’s our shared passion for making a positive impact on the lives of children and families that truly makes our team special. We approach our work with genuine love, dedication, and a deep sense of responsibility, creating an environment where children thrive, and families flourish.

How will you measure your own success?

I measure my own success by embracing the reality of victories and losses each day. While celebrating our triumphs, I also recognize the value of learning from challenges and setbacks. When something doesn’t go as planned, I see it as an opportunity to assess and adapt, striving to find solutions that lead to improvement and success for everyone involved. My goal is to foster a culture of continuous learning and growth, where we embrace change as a pathway to better outcomes, ensuring that every experience contributes to our collective success in the long run.

What’s it like to be in a startup within a century-old organization?

Being part of a startup within a century-old organization like MHS is truly inspiring. The rich history of Milton and Catherine Hershey deeply resonates with me. Upon arriving here from Houston, I felt compelled to learn all I could about these pioneers who believed in providing every child with an opportunity to thrive.

As we build upon this remarkable legacy, our focus is on adaptation and innovation. We are working towards a model that encompasses the whole family within a non-residential program. It’s exciting to see how we are evolving and shaping the future of CHS, staying true to the vision of the Hersheys while embracing new approaches to support and empower families to achieve their fullest potential. The blend of tradition and innovation is what makes being part of this startup within a century-old organization such a rewarding and enriching experience.

What needs do you see for the families you’ll be serving in Pennsylvania?

Having raised three children myself, I understand firsthand that parenthood presents challenges regardless of one’s income. At CHS, we are acutely aware of some of the struggles families face in Pennsylvania, including financial barriers, lack of high-quality childcare, limited employment opportunities, and inadequate access to physical and mental health resources. Our overarching goal at CHS is to provide comprehensive support to these families. By guiding them toward essential resources, we aim to break down barriers and empower them to make positive changes in their lives. We believe in fostering a nurturing environment that not only addresses immediate needs but also lays the foundation for a brighter and more promising future for both families and their children. Our dedication lies in helping our CHS families thrive and flourish despite the obstacles they may encounter.

How will CHS work with families?

CHS is committed to working closely with families, offering a unique approach through our dedicated CHS Family Success Advocates. These advocates will collaborate closely with each family, empowering them to identify and develop their own goals. Our aim is to create an environment where every family feels confident and comfortable in achieving their personal goals, as well as advocating for their children, not only during their transition into kindergarten but throughout their entire educational journey.

Through personalized support and partnership, we will help families navigate the challenges they may encounter and provide the resources and guidance they need to ensure their success. By fostering this strong and enduring bond with families, we can lay the groundwork for a nurturing and thriving experience, enabling children and families to reach their fullest potential and change the trajectory of their futures.

And finally, with only weeks to go before CHS Hershey opens, what are your hopes for the new center, and this new chapter in MHS’ mission?

With only weeks remaining before CHS Hershey opens its doors, my hopes for the new center and this new chapter in MHS’ mission are brimming with excitement and anticipation. Above all, my heart is set on the children and their families. I cannot wait to meet them and be a part of their journey toward growth and success.

Equally thrilling is witnessing our dedicated staff putting into practice all that they have learned and honed throughout the year. Their passion and hard work have been inspiring, and I am eager to see their expertise come to life in the enriching environment we have created at CHS Hershey.

This new chapter marks a significant milestone in our mission to support and uplift families in Pennsylvania. The prospect of making a positive impact on the lives of children and families fills me with immense joy and motivation. Together, we embark on this journey, driven by the belief that every child deserves the opportunity to thrive and succeed. I am incredibly excited about what lies ahead and can’t wait to see the positive changes that CHS Hershey will bring to the community.

Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning are subsidiaries of Milton Hershey School and will be staffed and operated independently of the Milton Hershey School core model.

Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning admits students of any race, color, national and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the school. It does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national and ethnic origin in administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic and other school-administered programs.