New South Bend Montessori High School opens during pandemic

NOW: New South Bend Montessori High School opens during pandemic

SOUTH BEND, Ind. - This week on The Learning Curve we take a look at a local private school opening up for the first time and it’s happening right in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

River Montessori High School, set right smack dab in the middle of downtown is home to two classrooms and a common area.

"So we opened our doors just three weeks ago," Eric Oglesbee, Co-Founder of River Montessori High School said. "Starting a high school is hard enough, but you throw a pandemic in, it's like, sure, why not. But what's been really neat to see is how much of what we're doing seems like it was almost tailor-made to happen during a pandemic.”

Oglesbee is just one of the Co-Founders of the school and is also a mathematics guide for the school.

"We use actually the term 'guide' supposed to 'teacher' because in a Montessori environment, the teachers are there to help guide the self-directed learning process for the students," Oglesbee said.

The school, small in number with only 14 students and 3 teachers or "guides."

"We scaled down a bit because of COVID. At maturity, the school's design, though, to be 60 to 70 students, so we started with just a group of ninth-graders and a small group of 10th graders, and we'll be adding grades each year," he said.

But the low enrollment numbers are not the only thing different about this Montessori Ihigh school, especially compared to let's say, public or even a private high school.

“How is it different? Well, for one, you'll see in a few minutes that as our students get here, we're going to be heading out to the museum of art for our fine arts program. So our students right now we're doing a unit on ceramics that are there, that this school is designed to use community resources as a part of the educational process," he said.

“I think they're constantly focusing on everyone in the community, making sure everyone is on the same page about stuff everyone is working towards their goals," Emelia Wetherall-Dehnlow, a 9th-grade student said.

Students, piled into the art museum for a 2-hour class taught by museum staff. Just one way this school is involving the community in everyday school environments.

“I am in ninth grade," Wetherall-Dehnlow said. “I'm a very artistic, expressive person. And I like to paint during class I like to just I like to express myself. And I knew that going to a public school, I might not have those same opportunities to do like creative follow up to subjects like math, or science. And so that was a big factor in just wanting to continue to build my artistic.”

“I think a lot of it is the school is obviously trying to build like connections with the community. So maybe we don't have a pottery kiln. Right. But we're taking advantage of the partnerships that we can make with the local community," Kate Chritton, a 10th-grade said.

“This is a model where students have an opportunity to go deep into their interests," Oglesbee said. "It's been interesting that they could not go as fast and as far as they wanted to in a traditional environment, which is bored out of their minds, or students who for in some things need a little bit more time or a little bit more flexibility in the environment, to be able to function that they weren't getting in a traditional environment.”

There are still challenges this small school faces, especially as it pertains to enrollment.

“Well, student recruitment became interesting when you couldn't host people on tours through a place of trying to recruit a student body through zoom was an interesting experience, but that what was actually in some sense, went a little bit better is that I think before COVID-19, everyone was comfortable with the status quo of education," Oglesbee said. "And then when they saw that a lot of what we do in education is not very adaptable and couldn't handle the situation we had. They became interested in progressive models of education, alternative models, whatever label you want to put on them. And so I think we had some families who were saying, you know, I'm more interested in that now than it would have been before.”

Even with just 14 students, the staff have just as much responsibility in making sure kids are safe coming in person,

“When they come in in the morning, we have a temperature check that they're having their sanitizer out everywhere. Students are to sanitize their workspace when they're done with it. When they're in school, they are encouraged to pick like one spot like that's going to be my workspace for the day. So we're not crossing the different elements. We have Dyson air purifiers going in the different rooms whenever possible. We're outside as opposed to inside with classes," Oglesbee said. "Masks required all times, the only time they come off outside is when you're actually nine to 16. And you say, hey, look you like 1012 feet. Like when you're truly apart, the mask can come down.” 

“It's a little bit crazy. I was very nervous. Like to start high school. It's kind of like nerve-racking. Oh my gosh, like the, one of the biggest steps like and then also just yet during a pandemic," Wetherall-Dehnlow said. "And then, like was a completely new school that's like just starting and like we're pioneering but also am very like excited because like, I know like that whatever this class does is going to have an impact on the rest of the school for however long.”

The High School has been opened for two weeks and each week they face new challenges but one thing is for sure, safety is top of mind.

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