Small School with a Big Heart

By Teya Vitu –

Smarts and a college degree will only get you so far. You have to be able to play well with others to get ahead in the world.

That’s the score at Green Fields Country Day School: you get plenty of smarts, and pretty much every graduate goes off to college – usually an elite institution. But the heart and soul of Green Fields is building what Head of School Rebecca Cordier calls “social competence.”

Building social skills from kindergarten through 12th grade matters just as much at Green Fields as Advanced Placement courses in history, biology, calculus, French, government, chemistry and music theory.

“They are able to build relationships with peers and adults as well,” said Cordier, a long-time Green Fields faculty member who was named head of school in April 2012. “They can move from a small school to any size school in any place.”

A critical milestone moment is the second semester of ninth grade, when the Green Fields game plan calls for students to have achieved tolerance, an appreciation of each other, self-awareness, social maturity and academic independence.

“They are self-aware,” Cordier said. “They know where they are going. They know they have college in their future. That adds up to a confident young person.”

Green Fields has been around forever, since 1933, on the north side near Orange Grove Road and Camino de la Tierra. It is Arizona’s oldest independent school and the only one in Southern Arizona offering a full K-12 program.

Green Fields is a different place. The name alone should tell you that. There are green fields, and the grass quad is a student favorite. You do think you’re in the country on these 22-acre sylvan grounds, where much of the architecture is 1930s brick.

“We don’t have a cafeteria,” Cordier said. “Everybody eats outside.”

That allows for daily casual mingling among students. Interaction among different grades is a hallmark at Green Fields, be it the student council initiated “Bigs and Littles,” where high school students pair up with middle school students, or the blurring of distinct grades on the high school level.

“In high school, there are not really those clear distinctions between grades,” Cordier said. “There are a lot of classes where there are mixed ages. Lots of friendships happen between grade levels. If you’re in with the kids up in maturity, you reach for that. It encourages them to get on the same playing field.”

It all starts in the early grades.

“Teachers know very clearly what students are ready for,” Cordier said of the elementary school faculty. “Developmental stages don’t necessarily equate with grade levels with each child. What they do is encourage them to get to the next level.”

Starting in fourth grade students also get a taste of the outside world with Interim, a one-week trip each year close to spring break. Each teacher leads a trip or other activity away from school.

“Students learn how to travel,” Cordier said. “You see things you don’t see everyday. It increases understanding things in a new way. Kids often say: ‘That’s not like I thought it was.’ ”

Then comes that sticky wicket known as middle school.

“That’s really fun,” Cordier said. “The middle school years are tumultuous. Our students are no different than middle school students anywhere else. They are noticing all these crazy differences in themselves and each other.”

Kids say mean things to each other. Green Fields faculty nip the taunting at the bud with dialogue, instilling in students to “be responsible for what you do and say.

“We offer them chances to make good choices,” Cordier said. “We encourage them to make the choice to build people up instead of tear them down.”

By the time the students get to Green Fields high school, they have basic relationship skills and the concepts of getting along down pat.

“Their energy and focus is on academics,” Cordier said.

Brothers Russell and Michael True, who jointly own White Stallion Ranch, know first-hand and second-hand what a difference a Green Fields education makes. Older brother Russell attended Marana High School while Michael was sent to Green Fields.

“Simply put, when I left high school and went to college, I had to work pretty hard in school. I had to step it up significantly,” said Russell True, who is past president of the Green Fields board. “Michael left and said the University of Arizona was a lot easier than Green Fields. That’s the difference.”

True went on to put two sons through Green Fields. The older went on to Cornell University.

“If he didn’t go to Green Fields, he probably wouldn’t have gotten in or wanted to,” True said.

About 170 students are enrolled at Green Fields, which is not the province of rich families. Some 40 percent receive financial aid, which, based on need, can be as much as 75 percent of the annual $14,200 high school tuition.

“Our parents are those who have found a way to make a sacrifice so their kids can come here,” Cordier said.

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