Southland College Prep, a charter public school in the south suburbs of Chicago, recently announced that its entire senior class was accepted to colleges across the nation including Yale, MIT, Cornell, and Northwestern. The Illinois Network of Charter Schools (INCS) followed up with the school’s Director of College Admissions to learn more about its winning formula for success. Robert Lane said staff maintain a deep commitment to students’ success in college, encouraging them throughout high school and then taking road trips to visit students on their college campuses.
Freshman and Sophomore Year
At the beginning of the school year, Southland staff meet with each freshman to underscore the school’s role as a college preparatory institution.
“It’s our expectation that every student not only applies to college but has the necessary skills, abilities, and potential to thrive in college,” said Lane.
Unlike other schools, Southland has a nine-hour school day starting at 8 a.m. and finishing at 5 p.m. The longer day allows students to log more hours in core areas like math and science and to develop time management skills prior to college. From freshman to sophomore year, staff encourage students to excel in their classes, earn a good grade point average and get involved in extracurricular activities ahead of college.
Most students take advantage of the free weekend SAT prep course Southland offers junior year. The course includes test-taking strategies, data-driven instructional lessons and three practice tests prior to the actual SAT. The practice exams give students benchmark data to measure how close they are to earning the test scores needed for college.
Southland staff also encourages juniors to start journaling.
“The college application process is not just about test scores and grade point averages,” Lane said. “It’s about communicating to strangers who you are, what your focus is, and what are your dreams.”
By keeping a journal, students create a one-year log of their emotions, challenges, successes, and ideas. These stories aid students when they sit down to write their college application essays. Rather than starting from scratch, students have hundreds of entries to pull from.
The summer before senior year starts, Lane meets with each family in the senior class to develop a unique college application strategy. Lane listens to which colleges each student is considering and any concerns their parents have. He then offers advice and informs families what opportunities are available for each student based on his or her individual need.
“That process is long, cumbersome, and tedious, but it really begins a conversation with all of the stakeholders,” Lane said.
Lane then creates a plan for each student to apply to a minimum of six schools by November 1. After students receive acceptance letters, Lane meets with families again to explain financial aid package offers. By April 15, Southland aims to have each student settled on one or two schools.
To ensure students thrive in college, Southland continues to offer support to alumni. Staff take road trips to visit students on their college campuses and take the students out to eat. Lane frequently emails students to check in on their grades, midterms, and homework. Staff also write recommendation letters for internships and research opportunities.
According to the National Clearinghouse, Southland’s college preparation process has resulted in a nearly 90 percent college persistence rate, meaning most of the charter public school’s alumni are returning to their colleges for a second year.
“The Southland family is just that: We don’t look at it as a one-year process of getting you into college,” Lane said. “It’s really a four-year, layered pathway that leads into this continual support to you through college.”