By Peter Shoemaker
and Peter G. Scotese

Stephen Girard, noted Philadelphia industrialist and philanthropist, would have celebrated his 265th birthday last month. His legacy endures, as his gift to the city, the Girard College, continues its long and distinguished history as a boarding school for the children of poor families throughout our region.

Many kids' lives have been transformed as a result of the education and support they received at Girard College. Founded in 1833, the school has produced scores of notable alumni, including several professional football, baseball, and soccer players, as well as professional musicians, accomplished businessmen, architects, attorneys, and a Pulitzer Prize winner.

But lately, Girard has hit on hard times. Its endowment has dropped to $230 million. In an effort to stabilize its finances, the Board of Directors of City Trusts, the governing body which oversees the school, decided to suspend its high school and boarding programs. But last August, Orphans Court Judge Joseph D. O'Keefe denied the petition by the board.

O'Keefe said high school and boarding programs were critical pieces of the vision that merchant-banker Stephen Girard detailed in his will, which established the school. The judge's decision pleased many students, who did not want to leave Girard, but the move does not solve the school's financial troubles.

To its credit, the Milton Hershey School — a boarding school with a similar mission — had offered to accept applications from Girard students. Unlike Girard, the Hershey Trust's assets are more than $10 billion. The outreach to Girard was seen as a good opportunity for the Hershey School, which was founded in 1909 by the chocolate maker, as the school is suffering from attrition.

In short, here's the situation: The Hershey School has money but needs students; Girard College has students but needs money.

These strengths and weaknesses of the two schools present a golden opportunity: Why not merge the two operations?

Combining the two schools could boost enrollment and ensure that both Girard College and the Hershey School continue in their admirable and vital mission to educate and house needy children.

The issue facing the Hershey School stems from its location in Hershey. Many of its students come from urban areas, and don't like being so far from home. Students often drop out because they are homesick.

By comparison, the Girard campus is located on 42 acres in Philadelphia's Fairmount neighborhood. Many students are close to home and see their families regularly.

Indeed, many Girard students who live close by choose to go home on weekends. Others, of course, stay on campus, where there are supervised weekend activities, including trips, sports, study time, and community service.

Going home on weekends is often not an option for students at the Hershey School. Many come from Philadelphia — two hours away — and other urban areas throughout the state, which can make getting home and back to Hershey very difficult.

Combining the two schools would also save the Hershey School money. Hershey spends about $100,000 a year educating and housing each student. Girard spends about $42,500 a year per student. Additional savings might be had by combining some programming and administrative overhead.

This innovative solution would stabilize Girard's sinking finances and guarantee its long-term existence. As it stands, a Girard spokesman said last year that its finances could be depleted within 25 years and the school would be forced to close.

The financial woes may also affect enrollment. Some families are reluctant to commit to the school out of fear that it may close. Something clearly needs to be done.

Perhaps the next mayor and Gov. Wolf could take the lead in finding a mutually beneficial solution for the problems of Girard College and the Hershey School. It would be the responsible thing to do. These fine institutions deserve to continue carrying out the noble legacies of their two founders.

Peter Shoemaker, Girard Class of 1960, is a former executive vice president of Global Imaging Systems, a division of Xerox, and a former chairman of Girard's board of managers.
Peter G. Scotese, Girard Class of 1937, is a former president and CEO of Springs Industries Inc. and is chairman emeritus of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. He is also a former chairman of Girard's board of managers.