At Green Fields Country Day School, it's not uncommon to find a bunch of third graders kicking a ball around with a high school senior.

With fewer than 200 students, the Northwest school encourages commingling of its third through 12th grade students. Soon, younger children will join the mix. In August, the school will open its doors to first and second graders. This year, it added third graders.

"Our goal is to be a K through 12," said Head of School Rick Belding.

Green Fields, the independent college preparatory school at 6000 N. Camino del la Tierra, began in 1933 as a boarding school for wealthy junior high-age boys from eastern cities including Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

The school provided an outdoor experience for boys bound for Ivy League universities.

In the mid 1960s, the school changed ownership and became a co-ed high school for Tucson students who could afford the tuition costs.

Over the years, the school extended its service down to the third grade.

The school's expansion down to first grade will not involve major construction, Belding said. The new students will use the space fifth graders use now, and fifth graders will move to another space.

"One teacher will float, displacing a current classroom," Belding said. "We have at least one free class space all the time this year."

Belding said the school is expanding now because some parents of preschool-age children have said they wish their children could start school in a Green Fields-like environment.

"What we're trying to do is give kids an environment where they're kids, and they're learning while being kids," Belding said.

To encourage commingling of age groups, the school will combine first and second graders in one classroom. This year, the third and fourth grade students shared a classroom.

With this arrangement, older children mentor younger ones, Belding said. The classrooms become less teacher-centered and more student-centered.

"Some of us feel strongly that multiage is the way to go in the early years," he said.

The students who return to the same classroom and teacher the second year feel like pros, and tend to want to show the new children the ropes, Belding said.

He saw an example of this recently, he said, while watching third and fourth graders give reports on such famous people as Helen Keller and Albert Einstein.

The young students faltered the most, but didn't appear self-conscious, Belding said. During lulls, the old-timers cued the first-timers with questions such as, "What was your mother's name?"

"They were mostly prompted by the students, not the teacher," he said.

Green Fields' small class sizes encourage camaraderie, Belding said. No more than 18 students will be admitted to the new class - preferably nine first graders and nine second graders.

A low student-to-teacher ratio means teachers can easily move their classes out to the grassy courtyard when the weather is too nice for being indoors, Belding said.

Of course, that comes at a price. Tuition for the 2004-05 school year is $7,500 for grades one through four, $8,500 for grade five, $11,500 for grades six through eight, and $11,900 for grades nine through 12.

Belding said the considerable tuition is a "tremendous downside" of the school, but that the mingling of ages is a wonderful sight.

"I came out the other day and a senior had a kid upside down and they were both laughing their heads off," he said.

An open house for first through 12th graders will be held from 1 to 3 p.m. March 14.

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