Special education teacher Denise A. Beck believes she has the perfect way to engage students: with aromas and live animals.
The wafting fragrance of peppermint would revive drowsy pupils and increase concentration during class lectures. Herbal scents might calm them during exams. Guinea pigs and dogs could sit deskside and give pupils something furry to pet as they worked on math problems.
Beck wants to bring her "therapeutic classroom" approach to Harford County, where she is among three groups that have asked school officials for permission to open charter schools.
Charters are increasingly becoming popular alternatives to public schools, which some parents see as generic and inadequate for their children's needs. Using taxpayer funds, charters are run by independent boards and are often based on a theme, such as a foreign language. Unlike competitive magnet programs, charters are open to all students.
More than 50 charters are being planned in Maryland, which has one, the Monocacy Valley Montessori School in Frederick County, where students work mostly independently and receive teacher evaluations instead of report cards.
"We're in an era where people want more choice. People want to make decisions about where their kids go to school," said Jacqueline C. Haas, superintendent of Harford County Public Schools. "Public education in the future is going to be a mosaic of a bunch of different kinds of education, and charter schools will be one of them."
This month, the Harford school board gave preliminary approval for the Restoration Alternative Academy Public Charter School, which proposes class sizes of 10 to 15 students and individualized lesson plans.
The charter would cater to pupils at risk of failure, said Joseph O. Williams, a Restoration organizer. Its planned opening out of the old Aberdeen High School next fall hinges on a $400,000 state grant and final approval by the Harford school board, which would fund the charter like a regular public school.
Tomorrow, the school board will vote on Eagles' Wings Academy, a charter that proposes a Spanish immersion program.
For now, the board has rejected Beck's application for the Dr. Ben Carson Public Charter School. A review committee wrote that the application was "poorly organized and lacked clarity," and board members later noted Beck's refusal to include personal information, such as her Social Security number, in the application.
Beck, who teaches special education at Holabird Middle School in Baltimore County, said she is considering an appeal. The Harford school board pledged to work with Beck on a future application.
Charter schools in other areas have been proposed to focus on college preparatory classes, organic gardening, special education and numerous other niches. Some, such as the KIPP Harbor Academy, which wants to open a charter in Anne Arundel County, offer longer school days.
Haas said she supports charter schools as a possible solution to long-standing problems vexing public school officials: absenteeism, delinquency and chronic failure.
"If I have a group of students we're not being successful with and I can work to create a charter program that will successfully educate them, I am happy," she said.
But there is some debate as to how effective charters are in improving student performance. A national study released last month by the National Assessment of Educational Progress suggested that charter school students perform no better in math and reading than pupils at regular public schools.
Charter school advocates point to more favorable studies.
Charters have been around for more than a decade but are new in Maryland, which leaves it to individual school systems to approve them. The charters are required to incorporate the school curriculum but are given autonomy with lesson plans.
"The whole point of charter schools is to be smaller, more community-based [than] larger, factory-model schools," said Timothy Daniels, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools, who advised Beck on her application.
Daniels said Pennsylvania charter schools, which number about 100, have reduced dropout rates by using unique teaching styles, such as the use of animals. Of course, there are many issues for school districts considering animal use, including children's allergies, Daniels said.
"You have everything from snakes to birds to large guinea pigs to ferrets. Some classrooms had five or six different animals," Daniels said. "It's a question of the kids caring for the animals, relating to the animals. It brings out a common, nurturing instinct in people."