Christian Zsilavetz had everything ready in the classroom for the students, parents and volunteers well before 8 a.m. on the first day of his new Pride School Atlanta.

He could hardly contain his excitement. He had been planning the school for more than two years with family, friends and allies. Now it was finally a reality.

He knew this school could save lives.

Tucked away on the main floor of the Unitarian Universalist Church near Interstate 85, the school is the first of its kind in the conservative south – a secure space for students, staff, volunteers and parents who don't fit society's conventional views of gender.

"It's a school where transgender students can find acceptance and safety at a time when trans communities nationwide are increasingly becoming targeted and vilified by politicians and school boards," Zsilavetz said.

"We've created a school where everyone is free to be themselves," says Zsilavetz, an experienced educator who describes himself as a gender-queer trans man. "Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, gender-queer, nonbinary – everyone is welcome here."

Based on the "free school" model, Pride School Atlanta joins a handful of such schools in the U.S. specifically designed as safe spaces for LGBTQ youth.

"These students needed a place to learn, free from bullying or judgment. When you remove these barriers to learning, it's amazing what can happen," he said. "Until every student has permission to be themself wherever they are and get an education where they have a full seat at the table, there will be a need for schools like Pride School," he said.

Zsilavetz said several students in the inaugural class live as other than their birth-assigned sex. "I firmly believe in bringing transgender rights to the forefront. We're totally ready for it. Now we can take care of our trans youth especially," he told parents. The school currently has eight students and a small staff of part-time and volunteer staff. It is funded by tuition, grants and support from the community and corporate affinity organizations. He hopes to raise enough funds to provide scholarships for any student who want to attend but can't afford the costs.

"It's the first year I've been excited to go back to school, to be someplace that celebrates in being who I am," says Josh, 14, one of the school's inaugural students. "It's a new beginning and a place I don't have to be scared to go to. It will be a place I can learn without restrictions," he said.

LGBT students often don't find safety in regular schools, Zsilavetz explained. "In many schools across the country there are no specific protections for gender identity and sexual orientation for students," he said. "They are at much higher risk for violence, depression, chronic bullying, shaming and suicide attempts."

"This school has therapists, social workers and mentors in place to help students be themselves," Zsilavetz continued. They can take off the mask, they can be, learn, grow and thrive. Our goal is for them to be healthy and happy, and get an education."

Robin Rayne Nelson is an Atlanta-based photojournalist and documentary producer. She specializes in disability rights and social justice issues as well as human interest stories.