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The queerest education in America: How LGBTQ+ kids thrive at this Indiana school

River Montessori High School South Bend Indiana
Meredith Goldberg for The Advocate

In South Bend, River Montessori High School is supporting its students to be their true selves. Here's a look inside its affirming walls.

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It’s 7:45 a.m. on an uncharacteristically warm late February Monday in Indiana, and eager students are trickling into school an hour early – not because they have to, but because they want to.

In the softly lit dawn of South Bend, an industrial Midwestern city aspiring for urban renewal, there’s a school that’s rewriting the story of what it’s like to grow up queer in America.

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A sanctuary for LGBTQ+ kids

River Montessori High School South Bend IndianaMeredith Goldberg for The Advocate

Inside the walls of what was once a grand church – complete with steeple and bell tower – sits River Montessori High School.

This space, once a key site for the First Presbyterian Church of South Bend’s large congregation, now serves as a lively secular school.

Within its historic walls, where most teachers identify as LGBTQ+ and nearly half the student body identifies as such, this tiny, private high school defies conventional schooling norms. In 2024, a school is more likely to make headlines for its efforts to exclude queer children and teachers – for “don’t say gay” laws and rules barring trans students from playing sports or using bathrooms.

River Montessori High School South Bend IndianaMeredith Goldberg for The Advocate

So what does it look like when a school not only accepts, but celebrates students’ identities? The Advocate traveled to South Bend to find out.

River Montessori is tucked into the heart of downtown amid the remnants of industry's bygone era—nearby, a palatial facility once buzzing with the journalism of the South Bend Tribune sits mostly abandoned, its large parking lot dotted with a few cars. Yet, there are burgeoning signs of metropolitan revival, where RMHS is a beacon of progressive education.

River Montessori High School South Bend IndianaChristopher Wiggins for The Advocate

RHMS is transforming the model around what a school can and should be. This micro school stands out in a town where the rumble of freight trains and the sight of boarded-up buildings serve not as symbols of decay but as reminders of resilience and rebirth.

“I’ve learned more about myself this year than I ever did in any other school. It's not just the classes, but how the teachers talk to us and listen to us—it makes a big difference.”

That’s how one student, a sophomore, who asked to be anonymous out of concerns for online bullying, describes River Montessori.

River Montessori High School South Bend IndianaMeredith Goldberg for The Advocate

The young people who attend RMHS, from diverse backgrounds and with equally diverse identities—sexual orientation, gender identity, learning ability, disabilities, and race—aren’t just preparing for the future; they’re actively shaping it, guided by a Montessori philosophy that prizes hands-on learning, self-direction, and collaborative freedom. Developed by Italian physician and educator Dr. Maria Montessori in 1907, the approach centers around young people’s innate individual desire to learn. According to the American Montessori Society, there are approximately 5,000 Montessori schools nationwide, but only a fraction of these serve high school students. The majority of Montessori institutions are private, like RMHS, with only 500 public Montessori schools existing across the country and an even smaller number offering high school education.

Community and identity

Arden, Forest, Cooper, Olive, Emelia, Orion, Ian, and Louis walk the student art-adorned halls, each carrying their own story, struggles, and dreams. To protect the featured families from harassment and doxxing, The Advocate is only identifying students and parents by first name.

River Montessori High School South Bend IndianaMeredith Goldberg for The Advocate

"I think, at least for me, when I realized that I was gay, it was at this school, and it was partially because of all of the positivity that surrounded me here,” says Ian, 18. “At my previous school, being gay was mocked—it wasn't something that was encouraged. I had a lot of problems fitting in, and I thought I couldn't possibly be gay because I fit in with all of these people.”

Ian, a competitive Super Smash Bros. player and a junior at RMHS, recounts how the school’s accepting environment allowed him to fully embrace his identity.

"There were a few times where I would say something, and it'd be recognized in a positive way, not derogatorily. That made me feel accepted and helped me realize things about myself that I wouldn't have in a less open setting. The school's welcoming atmosphere made me feel more like myself and embrace who I am," he says.

River Montessori High School South Bend IndianaMeredith Goldberg for The Advocate

Arden agrees.“I've never had any issues with anybody making fun of me or talking about me behind my back for being a bit weird, which happens actually a lot outside of the school because everybody here is really accepting of lifestyles and different ways of expressing yourself,” Arden says, adding, “I dress really alternative and no one here's barked at me.”

Among those in this vibrant community is Louis, a 16-year-old transgender boy who was eager to talk about what the school means to him. Louis, with his infectious energy and gregarious nature, is found holding court in the student union on the lower level of the building. It’s his second year at River and he says it’s better than his public school experience.

“It's a lot easier here because people are just very welcoming, and while it is a tight-knit community, I think that everybody's very open to new people coming in,” he says.

The student union is open to students to socialize, regroup, and study. Here, the school community hosts daily meetings where students and staff share announcements and discuss issues. Each morning, students trickle in to write their lunch orders on laminated cards so that food doofers (that’s food backward and includes student volunteers) can prepare everybody’s lunch in time for the midday meal break.

Facing the future together

RMHS is not just a place of learning; it is a microcosm of society at its best—innovative and infinitely hopeful. Students from the region, including those who cross state lines from Michigan, converge here, drawn by the school’s reputation for embracing every student’s identity fully. Students work toward year-end integrated projects to demonstrate their proficiency—taking into consideration the quality of real-world work products instead of scores. Like his peers, Louis finds in RMHS a place where his identity is accepted and celebrated.

River Montessori High School South Bend IndianaMeredith Goldberg for The Advocate

In a national climate where the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals are hotly debated and often compromised, the school’s approach contrasts sharply with jurisdictions where discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation are stifled and educators navigate the treacherous waters of censorship.

“Talking about gender and sexuality isn’t taboo here like it was at some schools. It’s opened up conversations that I never thought I could have openly with adults or even peers before,” says Louis.

Growing up with lesbian parents, Louis says that he has always been accustomed to the spotlight and the curious stares that sometimes follow his family in public. This kind of attention could make anyone feel singled out, but Louis finds that none of that matters at River Montessori High School. Here, in this supportive and open-minded environment, his unique family background and personal identity are met with acceptance rather than curiosity.

"I have two moms, so," Louis mentions, casually reflecting on his life outside the family structure often depicted in society. At River Montessori, this aspect of his identity doesn't concern him. "It’s quite odd, but a lot of the people that I know and the people that I’m around very frequently are LGBTQ+. It’s so nice," he explains.

River Montessori High School South Bend IndianaMeredith Goldberg for The Advocate

Within the walls of River Montessori, Louis feels seen for who he is, not just for the makeup of his family or his gender identity. The school has fostered an environment where Louis, like every student, is respected and valued simply as a person, which has significantly contributed to his confidence and self-assurance.

"Everybody’s just very friendly and welcoming, and I actually kind of got the confidence to transition here, and that was great," he shares.

The RMHS experiment

River Montessori is a young school. It emerged from a collaborative effort among educators, parents, and community members. In 2018, RMHS co-founder Dr. Eric Oglesbee engaged with organizations like the Wildflower Foundation and the Drexel Fund to support developing a prototype high school model.

River Montessori High School South Bend IndianaMeredith Goldberg for The Advocate

The Wildflower Foundation focuses on creating and sustaining small, community-based Montessori schools, while the Drexel Fund provides resources and funding to innovative educational initiatives. With a fellowship from the Drexel Fund, Oglesbee led a comprehensive curriculum development and planning process starting in December 2018.

Oglesbee says he co-founded River Montessori High School to address gaps in traditional education, particularly for students who need an individualized approach, like his son, who is on the autism spectrum. His experiences as a college professor highlighted the deficiencies in preparing students for higher education.

"The skills they're coming with, they're not coming fully cooked enough to be able to really be independent thinkers and self-motivated," Oglesbee says.

Driven by the Montessori method's focus on personal development, Oglesbee and his team conducted a six-month feasibility study with stakeholders to ensure the school met community needs. This collaborative approach helped shape a school environment where "people can be a hundred percent themselves," which naturally attracted a significant number of LGBTQ+ students and those with special needs, he says.

River Montessori High School South Bend IndianaMeredith Goldberg for The Advocate

Joined by Eileen Mariani, an educator with more than 25 years of experience teaching, the RMHS launch team worked to establish the school’s mission, curriculum, and campus. In August 2020, amidst the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, RMHS welcomed its pioneering cohort of students.

Now, after the first class of graduates in 2023, the school’s community of 41 students, including 20 who openly identify as LGBTQ+, and a staff of eight educators, of whom five identify as queer, is growing.

While the school day begins at 8:45 a.m. with the sounding of a gong, much of the student body arrives well before then to socialize and prepare for their day. The school’s ambassador, a flamboyant rabbit with tufts of hair surrounding its head resembling a lion’s mane named Bandit, roams freely through a classroom while a cat with a neurological disability receives wanted attention in another space within the building.

River Montessori High School South Bend IndianaMeredith Goldberg for The Advocate

This school feels more like a camp or college atmosphere than a high school.

The library, serving as a meeting place and English classroom, is a testament to this ethos. Students have access to a wide variety of books, including many titles that some public school jurisdictions under right-wing control have banned. Various Pride flags, including the Progress Pride Flag, the nonbinary Pride flag, and the transgender Pride flag, along with a Black Lives Matter flag, adorn the walls next to Old Glory.

River Montessori High School South Bend IndianaMeredith Goldberg for The Advocate

Classrooms are warm and inviting, with various seating options— comfortable chairs and couches and grouped tables instead of rows— so students can choose the best environment that suits them that day. Traditional barriers between students and teachers dissolve in the RMHS classrooms, replaced by a mutual exchange of ideas and experiences. Students and guides (that’s what they call teachers) are all on a first-name basis, and students know about their guides’ personal lives.

River Montessori High School South Bend IndianaMeredith Goldberg for The Advocate

The parents’ perspective

Seventeen-year-old Arden, who uses she/her and he/him pronouns, loves the diversity of RMHS, where being oneself isn’t just allowed — it’s celebrated. And Arden’s dad, Mark, says that while he’s pleased his child is doing well academically, “what truly sets RMHS apart is its emphasis on nurturing a love of learning and holistic personal growth.”

Forest, a 16-year-old transgender student who uses he/they pronouns, found refuge in River.

River Montessori High School South Bend IndianaMeredith Goldberg for The Advocate

“RMHS showed me it’s okay not to fit into a box. Before I came here, I didn’t even know there were boxes I didn’t have to fit into,” he says.

Forest’s parents, Lauren and Brett, have had their own journey outside those boxes. Raised within the Catholic and Methodist churches, they left to seek more loving and affirming communities. As parents, they aimed to be proactive and open-minded. "We were the enlightened parents, you know, we were going to think of these things in advance,” Brett says.

While Forest navigated his gender identity, he encountered harmful misgendering in Taekwondo, which led to suicidal feelings. Recognizing the severe mental health impact, Lauren and Brett severed ties with the class."It was crucial in safeguarding him from further emotional harm," says Brett.

Despite efforts to find supportive communities through Taekwondo classes and homeschooling groups, Forest felt isolated and struggled to explore his identity. The family’s search for acceptance led them to RMHS, which was recommended by another parent they met through a book group.

“Before Forest went to River, we were struggling to find a gender-affirming community,” Brett explains. “River is really the only place outside of our home where Forest felt he could actually have a community.”

The couple praised River Montessori for its role in supporting Forest through his transition.

“River doesn’t only affirm my trans son. River affirms everyone, and that’s what I want for the world,” Lauren says.

River Montessori High School South Bend IndianaMeredith Goldberg for The Advocate

Cooper, who identifies as straight, says that he appreciates the environment RMHS offers. The conservative notion of being converted or indoctrinated into becoming gay or trans offends the young meteorology fan.

“I’ve never felt out of place here, even though I’m straight. It’s like, being who you are is the norm, and that’s refreshing,” he says. “I’m an ally. Many of my friends are LGBTQ+. I don’t understand the big deal.”

He adds, “Being straight in an environment like RMHS has opened my eyes in ways I never expected. It’s about respecting each other, learning from our differences, and growing as individuals.”

Despite challenges such as anxiety about standardized testing, Cooper, who has been in Montessori education from a young age, found support and encouragement at River, according to his mom, Kathy.

She says Cooper’s experience at RMHS has prepared him well for the future, instilling a love for learning and a strong sense of self.

“He’s found a place where he can truly be himself and thrive academically and socially. It’s been incredible to see his confidence grow and to know he’s embraced for who he is,” she says.

Rebirth of an industrial town

Depending on their grade level, students can explore the downtown area—including the St. Joe County Public Library and the South Bend Museum of Art—with permission by checking out Airtag GPS transmitters, which allow staff to monitor students.

“We have access to all of this—Adobe software, recording booths, art spaces—just with a library card,” says Emelia, 18.

Emelia also works at Downtown South Bend, the city’s urban development program for the central business district, where her mother, Willow Wetherall, is the executive director.

River Montessori High School South Bend IndianaMeredith Goldberg for The Advocate

"South Bend is experiencing a real renaissance," says Wetherall. "We've seen a significant increase in downtown events, new businesses opening up, and community projects that are drawing people back to the heart of the city."

She emphasizes the role of collaborations, such as those with River Montessori High School, in fostering a vibrant downtown.

"These partnerships are vital," she adds, "they bring energy and innovation that are key to our city's rebirth and economic vitality."

River Montessori High School South Bend IndianaChristopher Wiggins for The Advocate

She says that her daughter has thrived in this setting and has become actively involved in community engagement efforts through her work with Downtown South Bend.

"Emelia's experience at RMHS has been transformative," Wetherall says, "She has blossomed into a confident, engaged young woman who feels empowered to be herself, which is everything a parent could hope for."

The opposite of “don’t say gay”

In the past four years, at least 15 states – including Indiana – have passed laws restricting teachers’ abilities to discuss issues of gender and sexuality in public school classrooms. Dubbed “Don’t Say Gay'' laws, they often end up preventing LGBTQ+ teachers from discussing basic information about their identities, partners, or families.

River Montessori High School South Bend IndianaMeredith Goldberg for The Advocate

But River Montessori encourages these conversations. Guides can share their experiences with students while adhering to professional constraints. This openness helps students do better work because they are invested in doing right by their guides, teachers and students say.

Patrick Newsom, a gay English and humanities teacher, says creating a culture of openness has value.

River Montessori High School South Bend IndianaMeredith Goldberg for The Advocate

“When these students open up to us, the thing that’s surprising is more often which students it is who are opening up to you rather than the fact that they are opening up,” he says.

The national political climate around education, particularly concerning LGBTQ+ issues, can make an already difficult job even more challenging for teachers.

"I am very grateful to be in a space where it is just kind of a given that it’s a safe space,” says Katie Bennett, a world language teacher at RMHS.

River Montessori High School South Bend IndianaMeredith Goldberg for The Advocate

Bennett recently returned to work after maternity leave and brings her infant son, Teddy, to school with her—an experience students respect and cherish.

“It’s about establishing a culture,” says Newsom. “It’s about socially and emotionally preparing our students for life.”

Creating a better learning environment

River Montessori High School South Bend IndianaMeredith Goldberg for The Advocate

River Montessori may sound like a dream come true for queer kids and their supportive families. But it is, of course, not perfect. It’s a private school that charges tuition on a sliding scale, based on household income. It has plans to expand to accommodate 60-70 students, and it reserves one-third of its seats for families qualifying for free or reduced lunch; they can attend for $450 or less per year.

This tuition model leads to budget constraints and can limit access to resources and extracurricular opportunities that are typically available in larger schools. And RMHS's embrace of non-traditional educational methods sometimes clashes with the conventional metrics used in college admissions.

River Montessori High School South Bend IndianaChristopher Wiggins for The Advocate

Montessori schools emphasize narrative evaluations, detailed descriptions of student progress, and competency-based assessments over standard letter grades. RMHS prepares transcripts that reflect this philosophy, where no GPA is included; instead, those transcripts focus on detailing a student’s strengths, areas of improvement, and personal growth across various subjects. These transcripts list courses taken and projects completed but also include qualitative assessments. However, according to Mariani – one of the school’s co-founders – colleges and university admissions counselors are accustomed to these transcripts.

Mariani, who also serves as a science guide at RMHS with 10 years of traditional school experience and more than 15 years of experience in Montessori education, thinks the environment works because it adjusts to student needs.

“It’s the adult’s responsibility to educate ourselves better and better adjust ourselves to meet who is coming to your door,” she says.

Mariani and Oglesbee say the River Montessori model can be replicated in other communities.

“We never intended to start the school to have such a queer population,” Oglesbee says, “but we started the school to be organically a place where people can be a hundred percent themselves.”

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Christopher Wiggins

Christopher Wiggins is a senior national reporter for The Advocate. He has a rich career in storytelling and highlighting underrepresented voices. Growing up in a bilingual household in Germany, his German mother and U.S. Army father exposed him to diverse cultures early on, influencing his appreciation for varied perspectives and communication. His work in Washington, D.C., primarily covers the nexus of public policy, politics, law, and LGBTQ+ issues. Wiggins' reporting focuses on revealing lesser-known stories within the LGBTQ+ community. Key moments in his career include traveling with Vice President Kamala Harris and interviewing her in the West Wing about LGBTQ+ support. In addition to his national and political reporting, Wiggins represents The Advocate in the White House Press Pool and is a member of several professional journalistic organizations, including the White House Correspondents’ Association, Association of LGBTQ+ Journalists, and Society of Professional Journalists. His involvement in these groups highlights his commitment to ethical journalism and excellence in the field. Follow him on X/Twitter @CWNewser (https://twitter.com/CWNewser) and Threads @CWNewserDC (https://www.threads.net/@cwnewserdc).
Christopher Wiggins is a senior national reporter for The Advocate. He has a rich career in storytelling and highlighting underrepresented voices. Growing up in a bilingual household in Germany, his German mother and U.S. Army father exposed him to diverse cultures early on, influencing his appreciation for varied perspectives and communication. His work in Washington, D.C., primarily covers the nexus of public policy, politics, law, and LGBTQ+ issues. Wiggins' reporting focuses on revealing lesser-known stories within the LGBTQ+ community. Key moments in his career include traveling with Vice President Kamala Harris and interviewing her in the West Wing about LGBTQ+ support. In addition to his national and political reporting, Wiggins represents The Advocate in the White House Press Pool and is a member of several professional journalistic organizations, including the White House Correspondents’ Association, Association of LGBTQ+ Journalists, and Society of Professional Journalists. His involvement in these groups highlights his commitment to ethical journalism and excellence in the field. Follow him on X/Twitter @CWNewser (https://twitter.com/CWNewser) and Threads @CWNewserDC (https://www.threads.net/@cwnewserdc).