To visit Robert Lane, ’95 LAS, go up one of the open stairways that rise from the atrium lobby of Southland College Prep Charter High School to the second-floor corridor that houses his office. Lots of people come by this bright, modest cube of a room, hung with colorful pennants from the colleges and universities where members of the Class of ’22 are now enrolled. Every year, new alumni send Lane isosceles-shaped fabric trophies bearing such show-stopper names as Columbia, Vanderbilt, Brown and Yale. The pennants change every year, but some names are constant and one of them is the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where 14 Southlanders are finishing up freshman year, and many more are sophomores, juniors and seniors.
Whether seated at his desk amid pennants and books or walking the school corridors, Lane, who serves as the school’s director of college admissions, is an ebullient presence. Solid and goateed, in black glasses and dark suit, he sports a tie striped, not coincidentally, with the Southland colors of maroon and blue.
“Our students tell us that when they go to college, it might be a little less challenging because they had so, so much to do here.” —Robert Lane, ’95 LAS
Southland opened in 2010 in Richton Park, Ill., a fraying bedroom community on the far south end of Chicagoland. The student body numbers around 500, with incoming freshmen selected by lottery. Over half of Southland’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. More than 90 percent are African American. And more than 90 percent get accepted to college.
“What we have really tapped into is the notion of grit and perseverance,” Lane says. “Our students tell us that when they go to college, it might be a little less challenging because they had so, so much to do here.” That would include Southland’s extended school day and extended school year, rigorous assignments and instruction, extracurricular activities and required community service.
Lane’s own educational journey took him—mostly, he says, “by bus”—from childhood in Chicago’s South Shore community (“a very, very, very, very dangerous place to be”) to a full scholarship ride at the University of Illinois and on to a graduate degree at the University of Notre Dame.
Since joining the Southland staff in 2014, he has devised myriad ways to keep his kids focused on their futures, engaging them in the college selection process from the time they enter as freshmen and shepherding them on college tours—including expeditions to the U of I where they meet Southlanders enrolled at Illinois and everyone gets treated to Papa Del’s famous pizza. Most important, Lane’s door is open to all comers—even Richton Park families whose kids don’t have the good fortune to attend Southland.
Back down in the sunlit lobby, the school motto—“Unlimited Potential, Unlimited Possibilities”—is literally written in stone and embedded in the floor. That this handsome space is a former office building repurposed for public education is a weighty message of hope, auguring well for those who come here. Beyond glass doors is the parking lot. And beyond that lies the path for many of the young people that Lane and Southland have helped launch to promising futures up and away.