When Erin Mahanay is dreaming up new lesson plans for her students each year, she imagines how they might work with her first-graders — and her second-graders and her third-graders.

When Erin Mahanay is dreaming up new lesson plans for her students each year, she imagines how they might work with her first-graders — and her second-graders and her third-graders.

Mahanay, a teacher at Talent Elementary's Outdoor Discovery School, says it takes a special kind of passion to want to teach three grades of children at once.

"It has to come from your heart," says Mahanay. "You can't just tell someone to teach this way. Teachers are sometimes scared of it."

The 56-student school is divided into two classes, a first- through third-grade class that Mahanay teaches, and a third- through sixth-grade class taught by David Tourzan. Both teachers have been with the school since it began two years ago.

Mahanay says she is able to break students up not necessarily by their grade level, but by their ability level, allowing for flexibility from traditional approaches that often "teach to the middle" for each grade.

The program has been highly successful, and the students yield higher test scores than the rest of the students at Talent Elementary School across the street, according to Principal Aaron Santi.

"It's been extremely successful from my perspective," says Santi.

The Outdoor Discovery School began in 2009 after a group of parents appealed to the Phoenix-Talent School District, saying there was a need and demand for such a program.

"I felt that the school district didn't have many options for students and that Talent had the right demographic," says Veege Ruediger, who helped create the parent committee. "It was pretty incredible that it took only one year to come together."

Ruediger's 8-year-old daughter, Acacia, is a third-grader at the school, and Ruediger says the wide range of ages in each class helps students develop social skills, making it more like a community than a traditional school.

"The multi-grade classrooms are more natural and reflect life more than isolating kids to their own age groups," says Ruediger. "It allows the class to be broken into small groups based on their ability."

While Ruediger says it is somewhat of a drawback that Acacia goes to school with only 10 or so other third-graders, the positives of having a school with project-based learning and community involvement outweigh that.

"It keeps kids engaged, and they're able to learn subjects at a different level," says Ruediger.

According to Teresa Sayre, instructional services director for the Phoenix-Talent School District, having classes with multiple grades allows teachers to focus less on a child's grade level and more on state standards.

"The teacher has to have a firm grasp for standards," says Sayre, adding that the Outdoor Discovery School has achieved a lot in its first two years.

"They're highly successful, the test scores are fantastic, and the teachers are genuine," says Sayre.

Both classes of students at the school, referred to as the "olders" and the "youngers," shared morning recess together Tuesday.

Ezra DeLuca, a fourth-grader in the "olders" class, says he likes going to the school because of his good teachers and all of the field trips.

"The teachers are really nice and really helpful," says DeLuca, 10, who is in his third year at the school. "I liked the Table Rock field trip."

The school sets aside time each Friday for either a field trip or on-site outdoor education.

The school has garnered high demand, with prospective first-graders signing up on a waiting list the spring before their kindergarten year starts, and parents hoping their child is one of nine chosen in a random lottery.

After the first nine are chosen, the rest are placed on boys and girls waiting lists in the event a student leaves the school.

Mahanay says she prefers not to get too involved with the waiting list and the program's demand, and instead focuses on building a family with the students she teaches year after year, and their parents.

"I really have a close relationship with my families," says Mahanay. "This is a whole different way of teaching."

Mahanay says parents regularly drop in to the class to check in, and sign up to volunteer every day of the week.

Mahanay says additional demand for programs like the Outdoor Discovery School will happen next year, when Oregon lifts transfer restrictions and students will be able to attend any school they choose, provided there is room.

"Traditional schools meet the needs of a lot of kids, but not all of them," says Mahanay. "Districts have to offer other choices."

Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or by email at tristow@mailtribune.com.