A Dauphin County judge on Friday approved the Milton Hershey School’s plan to open six free early-childhood centers around Pennsylvania for $350 million that will serve 900 low-income kids.

The creation of the centers will be the first time in more than 100 years that the charity that controls the Hershey Co. chocolate giant, with assets of about $14 billion, will help poor children outside of its rural Hershey campus, which houses and educates 2,200 K-12 students. Critics have said the charity has failed to expand its mission commensurate with its soaring wealth.

“It’s historic,” Dauphin County Common Pleas Court Judge John Joseph McNally said Friday. “This is a wonderful solution for a problem which we wish we all had: too many resources and not enough places to put them to good use.”

McNally agreed that keeping all the available income from the Hershey School endowment in Hershey would be impractical and a waste. The Hershey School filed the petition Sept. 30 for the childhood center network. McNally held two days of hearings, on Thursday and Friday.

According to the decree McNally signed Friday, the Hershey School will earmark 25% of its endowment income to the Head Start-like centers, while continuing to also fund the main residential school.

The Hershey School has “put adequate safeguards in place,” McNally said. “They shall not put at risk their core model.”

Attorney General Josh Shapiro said Friday that “the early childhood initiative marks a new era for the Milton Hershey School and I am looking forward to more positive developments.” The state attorney general regulates Pennsylvania charities and nonprofits.

In its filing with the Orphans' Court Division of the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas, which has jurisdiction over the charity, Hershey School officials said that for decades the institution has had difficulty recruiting students to its campus for its free program, partly because their parents are unwilling to send them there.

The first childhood center is expected to open on the Hershey School’s main campus in 2023 and a second in Harrisburg in 2024. The locations of the four other Pennsylvania centers, part of what the charity calls the Early Childhood Education Initiative, will be determined by the Hershey School’s Board of Managers. Two centers are expected to open in 2025 and one each in 2026 and 2027.

Each center will enroll 150 children, from infant to 5 years old. Once completed, the six centers are expected to cost about $55 million a year to operate. The centers can also provide students to the Milton Hershey School, serving as a feeder network.

“The Milton Hershey School and Hershey Trust Co. are gratified by the court’s decision, which clears the path for us to expand and enhance the impact and reach of Milton and Catherine Hershey, and allows us to serve more children than ever before,” Robert Heist, a Hershey alumnus and chairman of the organization, said Friday. “While this is just the first step in the process, we are thrilled to start putting words into action."

Peter Gurt, the school president, said the institution would "work with our staff and early childhood education leaders from around the country to design this world-class program.”