Southland College Prep Charter High School is sending all its seniors to college in the fall.
It’s rare for a school in Illinois to do that, especially one where almost all the students are African American. But the south suburban Richton Park charter school is doing it again for the sixth year in a row. Southland’s student body is more than 90% African American.
All 116 students in the senior class are graduating this month. The students have collectively earned more than $50 million in scholarships, according to school officials.
At a celebration on Tuesday, each student placed a blue sticker on a map showing where they’re going to school, and they’ll be all over the country. Many are headed to the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, but some are leaving the state for schools like Cornell University and MIT.
Sydney Mells is going to Atlanta to attend Emory University where she plans to major in neuroscience and possibly minor in theater.
“Going to a predominantly African American school, there’s a lot of stereotypes of who is college-bound, who isn’t going to college,” Mells said. “So the fact that we’re all going to college as people of color, it makes me really proud of us as a whole to know that we’re capable of greatness as well.”
Charter schools are publicly funded, but privately managed. Southland opened in 2010 despite efforts by the local school district to block it for fears it would take away students and money. Southland admits students by lottery and is open to any student in Rich Township District 227, which covers several south suburban communities. There’s no test to get in.
Southland CEO Blondean Davis defended the school and said she’s giving students what they need to be successful in college.
“I know that our children have the ability to do and achieve,” Davis said. “However, they don’t necessarily come out of elementary schools with the foundation they need to go to a competitive college and to graduate.”
To get students ready for college, Southland has a nine-hour school day and students take more classes than at a traditional school.
The class of 2014 was Southland’s first graduating class. Davis said about 80% of them have graduated from college. She says they benefited from Southland’s small size, which allows them to tailor education to individual needs.
“The teachers in the building know [students’] learning styles. They know who has difficulty with math and science, who needs additional attention, and that enables us to modify our instructional program,” Davis said.
The class of 2019 started off with 163 freshmen, and now it’s down to 116. The administration explained the drop by saying students transferred out, either moving away from the area or enrolling in a different school.
“You could have a much shorter day, and an easier program and with less credits to graduate if you wanted to go someplace else,” Davis said.
Student Maureen Tchatchoua is going to Claremont McKenna College in California. She said she doubts she would’ve applied to half the colleges she was accepted to if she’d gone to another high school.
“Those doors were opened up for me, and I was able to take those opportunities,” she said.