Former Baltimore cop and teacher Ed Burns isn't a masochist. The writer-producer for the HBO series The Wire is just feverishly trying to save public schools.
Something's not right here.
Stand at the intersection of Baltimore’s Guilford Avenue and East Lanvale Street and look up at the façade of the old brick school in front of you. Paint peels from every window frame, and even the boarded-up windows are broken. That in itself isn’t too surprising in an urban school system as troubled as this one. But check your watch. It’s a Tuesday morning in November, and there are no children in sight at an hour when students should be hustling up the littered sidewalks to beat the tardy bell. Instead, the street is jammed with shiny black semi-trailer trucks. The only humans in the vicinity of the building’s metal doors are a burly man and a young woman, each with a laminated ID and a walkie-talkie headset.
Walk inside, and things under the cracked fluorescent lights look exactly as you’d expect them to in a city public school, from the tiled walls to the painted-cinderblock classroom where, according to a seating chart, teacher Roland Pryzbylewski is right now supposed to be educating a roomful of Baltimore middle-schoolers. Except Pryzbylewski (pronounced “Prezbelewski”) isn’t a real teacher. And, at the moment, the chilly room is occupied only by video equipment and the people operating it.
What you’ve actually stumbled across is a set for The Wire, a critically applauded HBO series about life and death on the streets of Baltimore. Each season of the show follows a thematic thread, with the city’s battle against crime as the ever-present backdrop, and the fourth season, being filmed today in the shuttered Mildred Monroe Elementary School, focuses on the education of four young Baltimoreans. Material for much of this thread comes from the lean, gray-haired man in dark clothes now walking through the classroom doorway. A black director’s chair sits nearby, emblazoned with the show’s name and his—Ed Burns—but the writer-producer ignores it, leaning down to squint his clear blue eyes at the video monitors showing the action across the hall.
In a sense, the 59-year-old is watching his own past: The scenes he’s written for this and other episodes come from his seven-year tenure as a teacher in Baltimore’s beleaguered schools.
So what is wrong with this picture, according to Burns? Nobody should need to be here filming today. If education were set up to truly address the problems that students come to school with, there’d be no classroom drama to shoot. A show portraying middle schoolers’ academic freefall to the streets outside should seem farfetched. Instead, it feels all too real.
Statistics tell part of the story. This past June, a study by Education Week, Teacher Magazine’s sister publication, found that just 39 percent of the city’s students graduate—the second-worst rate in the country among large school districts. And at the individual school level, some of the numbers are even bleaker. Roughly 94 percent of 4th graders at Arundel Elementary/Middle failed Maryland’s standardized math exam in 2005. At Lake Clifton-Eastern High, 97 percent of students failed their English exam that same year.
Baltimore was once a thriving manufacturing center, but between 1970 and 1990, it lost more than 50 percent of its jobs, according to federal statistics. The latest U.S. Census shows that the city’s per capita income is $16,978,and roughly one in five families are living below the poverty level—more than double the national average. Only 8 percent of Baltimore’s jobs today are in manufacturing, but just 19 percent of the city’s residents hold at least the bachelor’s degree most white-collar jobs require. More than 40 percent of working-age residents are not in the labor force.
Ed Burns, a writer and producer for the acclaimed HBO series The Wire, spent two decades chasing murderers and drug dealers before he became a teacher in Baltimore’s troubled school system. Below, he shares some techniques—not all of them district-sanctioned—that he successfully tested over his seven-year middle school and high school career.
“I was willing to take risks [in the classroom]. I took a rope and hung it from my ceiling and told them, ‘When I grab this, everybody freezes. Or I’m going to vomit all over you. Because you’re making me seasick.’”
“You get kids thinking by making them responsible for their own education. If you’re having them make the discoveries instead of telling them the discoveries, it’s a big difference. In my classroom, we decided that the wheel was a really important thing. Some teacher [had] said the wheel was cool. But I said, ‘What could you do with it?’ [The kids said,] ‘Well, you can make a cart. Let’s make carts.’ So I got all the material, and they cut out the little wheels and made the axle, and then they glued the cart to the axle, so the wheel would turn half a revolution and the cart would hit the ground. I would be like, ‘You said it was the greatest invention in the world. What’s wrong here?’ And they would struggle to figure it out and began to understand there’s this thing called friction. And that was their discovery. [I]f you’re not making them responsible, you’re not making them be creative.”
“I would never give an answer. And it used to drive [students] absolutely crazy. The kids were crying, but [I’d say], ‘I don’t plan to be with you next year or the year after, and I’m certainly not coming to live with you, so I’m not going to be there to provide you the answers, so get it on your own.’ And you could actually taste improvement in the classroom. And you’d have kids come back to you and say, ‘Mr. Burns you really, really helped me.’ And I’d say ‘Of course I did. Now get out of my classroom.’ ‘Aw, Mr. Burns, you never change.’ ‘No, I don’t. Bye. Get out of here. Next group.’”
“There’s no more jobs [in Baltimore] where you can just go on the sweat of your brow and the strength of your back,” says Burns, who has lived and worked in the region for more than 30 years. “So if you can’t use your mind … in some way, then you’re condemned. Education is the only opportunity [young people] have got.”
He shies away from the notion that the new season of The Wire, which kicks off September 10, is a way of broadcasting his ideas on education. But it’s no coincidence that the season’s theme jibes with these Burnsian words of wisdom: “Kids will get educated. The question is, where?” Children will learn, in other words—either in classrooms or on the streets—the lessons that will shape their adult lives.
During its 2002 first season, The Wire—named in part for the electronic-surveillance apparatus police use to catch criminals—dealt with Baltimore’s drug war. Succeeding seasons focused on the city’s withering working class and its political machinery. Burns says the show’s intent throughout has been to, “in a microscopic way, give you some idea of what the problem is.” But as with the other topics, there’s “no way you can capture a year in a classroom,” he adds. “It’s stunning if you go into a middle school [or] a high school in Baltimore. No matter what we do on The Wire, we can’t begin to capture what’s out there. It’s too relentless. There’s too much of it.”
In an era when the national education dialogue is thick with words beginning with A—achievement, accountability, Advanced Placement—the word that comes to Burns’ mind most often when thinking about Baltimore students starts with an F. “These kids are fucked up,” he says, leaning in for emphasis.
Burns is unquestionably cynical, but he may be the most relentlessly optimistic cynic in the country. He loves teaching, but he finds most teachers unimpressive. He hates bureaucracy, but he’s been an active part of acutely dysfunctional institutions. He thinks American education is hopelessly screwed up, but that it’s also the country’s only hope.
So it makes sense that while he’s putting chronically failing schools under The Wire’s dramatic spotlight, Burns has also been working on an offscreen project to help reach the city’s most endangered students. With plans to eventually expand the pilot program to other troubled districts, Burns’ aim is both simple and extravagantly ambitious: to resurrect public education.
“Everybody, I’d like to talk—”
As played by the actor Jim True-Frost, Roland Pryzbylewski looks every inch the newbie teacher, from his pressed shirt and careful tie to his hesitant manner, which can’t compete with the high-decibel banter of his class.
“I want to talk—” he tries again, to no effect.
- The Wire, an HBO series co-written and -produced by former police detective and teacher Ed Burns, is not your typical cop show. The Peabody Award-winning series follows many characters and narrative threads in its exploration of crime, politics, and survival in Baltimore. In part, its fourth season, which debuts September 10, follows the lives of four middle school students in and out of the classroom. But anyone tuning in for the first time may find the following plot history helpful. For additional information, check out: www.hbo.com/thewire
One of the middle school characters is Sherrod, a new student and the only one not wearing the fictional Edward J. Tilghman Middle School’s uniform of khakis and burgundy polo shirt. After briefly getting the students’ attention, Pryzbylewski’s command of the class is again derailed—this time by a boy’s lobbed question: “It true you police?”
The news reignites the raucousness. After trying in vain to get back to the topic he’d been discussing—a classroom fight the day before—Pryzbylewski concedes, “I used to be a police. Now I’m a teacher. But being a police isn’t just about carrying a gun.”
The class laughs uproariously. “It’s about working with the community,” the teacher insists.
“The ‘com-muni-ty,’” taunts a girl, drawing the word out in a sing-song. “Y’all ain’t been in my com-muni-ty in a long time, ’cept to wale on people.”
To illustrate, one boy throws himself to the floor as others stand in a circle, pretending to beat him. Another student shapes his fingers into a fake machine gun and riddles the boy on the floor with imaginary bullets. As Pryzbylewski tries to break up the group, Sherrod slips unnoticed out the classroom door.
During a break in filming, True-Frost says the scene rings true. As part of the Teach For America program, his wife taught middle school in Baltimore for two years, and, before shooting for the season began, he sat in on several classes to get a feel for educator-student dynamics.
HBO doesn’t share scripts with the press before airtime, but Burns says the season focuses on four 8th grade boys. “You see the world they’re in and what forces are pulling them,” he explains. “The school system is one magnet, the police, another magnet. You have [a] gym as another magnet, and then you have the drug dealers.”
Down the hall from the set, Burns sits in a shadowy abandoned classroom. Dressed in black pants, charcoal-colored sweater, fleece vest, and brown hiking shoes, he’s hunched—partially because it’s too small for him and partially for warmth—over the scarred, graffiti-gouged surface of a desk. The school was decommissioned in 2001, and there’s no working furnace. It doesn’t help that one window is perforated with what appear to be small-caliber bullet holes.
In a hushed voice that’s almost a whisper—punctuated by an assistant director yelling “Rolling!” or “Cut!”—Burns speaks slowly, peppering his sentences with profanity, quasi-sociological hyperbole, and scholarly allusions. It’s not what you’d expect from someone who used to teach, an occupation he calls tougher than either of his two previous jobs: investigating murders for nearly two decades as a Baltimore Police Department detective and surviving combat as a Vietnam War infantryman.
“In the first year I was teaching, there were 120 kids in our group; 13 had been shot,” he recalls of his time at Hamilton [Middle] School in 1994. “We had two or three stone alcoholics. I mean blitzed. This was in 7th grade. I had kids who couldn’t read. Not a word. I had kids who wouldn’t talk. You’ve got borderline personalities, you’ve got D.I.D. [Dissociative Identity Disorder] personalities, you’ve got schizophrenics. A team of psychiatrists couldn’t do the job, but you’re supposed to be able to do it.”
And those were the good kids. The “bad” ones, whom he calls “corner kids” because they’ve spent most of their formative years on drug-selling streets, treat school like “a training ground for the corner,” Burns says. “Teachers, administrators—they’re [stand-ins for] the police.”
With such children, classroom discourse tends to follow a well-worn pattern. Here’s how Burns describes it:
“Teacher looks down at [a student], says, ‘You reading a magazine?’ ‘I ain’t readin’ no magazine.’ ‘I just saw you—’ ‘Ain’t got no fuckin’ magazine—the fuck you talking ’bout, bitch?’
“And when we—teachers, administrators—really decide to crack down on him, he says, ‘I’ve got my master’s degree. I’m out the door. I’m ready for the corner.’—long about 13, 14.”
Burns smiles. “And then he goes out on the corner, and the cop says, ‘I saw you drop that bag of dope.’ ‘Ain’t seen me drop shit, man.’ … He learns [that] in school.”
Far from being an unlikely second career, teaching is something Burns saw as a natural extension of his skills as a detective. “Only in the classroom you can make a difference,” he says, bluntly. “On the street you can’t.”
In a way, Burns says, becoming an educator after being a cop was like going back in time. Some of the kids in the classroom were the same sort he had watched hustle the corners when he was a detective. With teaching, he was “looking for something that is a challenge, both professionally and intellectually—and something that will help you understand the overall picture of what’s going on. That’s my hobby: [Asking] ‘Why is it this way?’”
He already knew part of the answer to that question, thanks to the reporting he did with writer David Simon, for The Corner. The 1997 nonfiction book, later turned into an HBO miniseries, chronicles the drug- and poverty-splintered life of a Baltimore family. Burns and Simon shadowed the book’s subjects throughout 1993 as they dealt heroin, stole copper pipe, and went in and out of rehab. Without a badge to scare people, the former detective was able to see up close the damage inflicted by growing up in such an environment.
Teaching, the following year, enabled Burns to fill in the part of the corner-kid-life-cycle puzzle he hadn’t yet witnessed. And he realized that, though the “thug kids” hadn’t yet left school to become full-fledged menaces to society, by middle school it was already too late: They were mostly beyond help.
“It’s how far along you are in the process of being on the corner,” he explains. “To try to turn around a kid who’s 18 years old, that’s like a NASA program.”
Not everybody is comfortable with this kind of honesty, but Burns isn’t known for keeping his thoughts to himself. “He’s a very opinionated soul,” allows Simon, the Wire’s creator and executive producer. “But the opinions—they’re grounded.”
Simon recalls an early encounter, back in 1985, with his future co-writer. Then-detective Burns had arranged to meet then-Baltimore Sun reporter Simon at a public library to talk about a story. When Simon arrived, Burns was carrying a history of the CIA’s secret wars and a book of essays by political philosopher Hannah Arendt. “I was pretty impressed,” Simon remembers. “I told him, ‘You’re not really a Baltimore cop.’”
Simon got to know Burns as he reported a serialized story about one of Burns’ big arrests, and even better as he researched the detective’s unit for the 1991 nonfiction book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. On the strength of Homicide: Life on the Street, a hit network-TV series that aired for seven seasons, HBO green-lighted Simon’s pitch to turn The Corner into a miniseries. The 2000 production won three Emmys, which helped persuade HBO to pick up Simon’s second collaboration with Burns, The Wire.
Simon had Burns’ background in mind when he began imagining the show in the late 1990s, and the former detective’s ideas and writing have been instrumental, he says, in guiding the series. But with this year’s story arc, Burns’ involvement has risen to a new level. “This season is really his season,” Simon says. “What we’re trying to say in the classroom, that’s Ed. And everybody else [on the show] is trying to serve Ed’s vision.”
That vision also extends beyond the screen. With a small grant from the philanthropic Abell Foundation and execution support from Community Law In Action—a nonprofit arm of the University of Maryland’s law school—Burns has been helping to steer an experimental approach to education at William H. Lemmel Middle School on the city’s decimated west side. He’d much rather have started with kindergartners or 1st graders, he says, but because of bureaucratic obstacles, “there was no opportunity to get into the elementary schools.”
Dubbed the Lemmel Academy, the program is designed to scoop corner kids out of regular classes at the school and immerse them in hands-on activities and social support services, then return them to mainstream learning. Without this kind of intervention, Burns and other Academy backers believe, schools will continue to hemorrhage students to the streets.
In Burns’ opinion, any worthwhile reform effort must address the unique needs of corner kids, who have no stable home life—or any home at all, in some cases. “We pretend, with No Child Left Behind and stuff like that, that it’s just a matter of pushing their noses deeper into the book and rubbing it harder to get results,” he says. “But if you are [a corner kid]”—he glances at the busted chairs and desks around him—“this classroom doesn’t work for you.”
He rattles off a list of crippling disadvantages these children face: “They don’t get love, they don’t get attention, they don’t get decent meals. So minus all of that, to start coming right in and expecting the three Rs and all of that—[a troubled student] can’t work with that. And it becomes a very cruel process of suspension, running the halls, getting kicked out of the classroom … until he decides he’s had enough” and drops out.
And it’s not just the hardcore few—Burns estimates they represent 15 percent of each class—who lose out. In his experience, the rest of the students, whom Burns calls “stoop kids,” for their tendency to stick close to their homes and out of harm’s way, suffer the educational consequences of their peers’ constant disruptions.
Statistics from the Maryland Department of Education seem to bear out Burns’ theory. In 2005, the latest year for which figures are available, 39 percent of Baltimore’s 3rd graders failed the state’s grade-level reading test. In math, 44 percent didn’t make the cut. By the time students reach the later grades, scores have gone from bad to worse. Among last year’s Baltimore 8th graders, 60 percent were reading below grade level and 81 percent fell below baseline math competence.
By high school, when Burns says most corner kids have already left the system for the streets, the damage has been done. Only 35 percent of Baltimore students passed the statewide English II exam last year, and just 22 percent did so in algebra.
Even with students at Baltimore City College, the flagship public magnet high school where Burns taught for three years after leaving Hamilton, he says the residual effects of sharing elementary and middle school classes with corner kids were obvious. Despite good test scores—the latest stats show 81 percent of City College’s students passing Maryland’s standardized English proficiency test, and 68 percent doing so in geometry—Burns found some of the kids couldn’t write complete sentences.
“These kids, who’ve come from sort of a very traditional world, with support, have been marginalized in their journey through the first eight years, so when they finally get to a place that can teach them, they are miles behind their competitors in the counties and the private schools,” he says. An entering 9th grader might be academically “on a 6th grade level or a 4th grade level.”
Resolving this problem, Burns declares, requires doing something counterintuitive: pulling certain kids out of classrooms as early as possible. “If you have a kid who comes into the room in kindergarten who is a corner kid,” he says, “a social worker and a police officer should go to that home and find out what the hell’s going on. Because there’s probably siblings there that are younger that need help, and there’s probably a mother there who needs a whole lot of help.”
At Lemmel Academy, the program Burns helped create is designed so that such kids can be put into small, intensively taught classes for 180 days of hands-on, project-based learning.
But trying to focus the district curriculum “on utilizing the energy of young people” is a challenge, according to Terry Hickey, Community Law In Action’s executive director. For example, the Academy’s architects knew that if they tried to teach persuasive writing by having corner kids write papers, they’d meet resistance. So, instead, they asked the students to construct cereal boxes—a lowest-common-denominator form of communication. On the sides of the boxes, the middle-schoolers wrote descriptions of the hypothetical cereal inside, trying to entice would-be shoppers to buy the product.
The school then invited a local advertising executive to analyze the boxes, pointing out their merits and weaknesses while explaining to the kids the potential career applicability of the exercise. Hickey ticked off other collaborative projects, including quilt-making and a student-driven anti-smoking campaign, that were also successfully started. “The point was to show them that learning is relevant,” he explains, and “why they are learning what they’re learning.”
That immediacy, Burns says, is the heart of the program, and something that could translate well in eventually helping troubled districts all over the country. Once the 180-day curriculum has been tested and its kinks worked out, he believes, the basic model would require only slight tailoring by educators working in different environments.
“What’s good for Baltimore city is also good for Allegheny County [Pennsylvania],” he says, or even for a rural area. “Poor, black, inner city can translate into poor, white, country. It’s the same process. The same idea about getting [kids] involved.”
It seems to be working in Baltimore so far. According to Hickey, “a lot of the students didn’t want to leave” after 180 days. And when they went back to conventional classrooms, Hickey marvels, “they were pretty much normal kids.”
In fact, Lemmel principal Vera Holley, with whom Burns is working, has already made impressive progress—even before receiving the Abell Foundation grant this year—with a small-scale Academy prototype serving 25 of the middle school’s most chronically disruptive students. In the prototype’s three years, the school’s 8th grade state reading-test performance jumped from 22 percent of students being at least proficient to 45 percent. Math gains were even more dramatic: Just 3 percent of 8th graders were proficient or better in 2003, but by 2005 that percentage had leaped to 25.
Burns is cautiously optimistic. “The kids are doing much better,” he says. “They have a long, long way to go, but they are getting better.”
A few months later, Burns is again sitting in a half-darkened room. Filming for the season has just wrapped, and the warm air outside on this morning in late May seems full of promise, but Burns’ mood is perceptibly overcast. He’s left all the lights off in The Wire writers’ southeast Baltimore conference room, and most of the window blinds and heavy curtains are closed against the sunshine.
The Lemmel Academy has fallen apart, and Burns is at a loss to explain why. Except, as he’s pointed out more than once, the enemy in this latest struggle—institutional inertia—can be more formidable, in a way, than any heavily armed, short-fused drug dealer or Viet Cong ambush.
In retrospect, there were warning signs. Burns was leery from the outset about using middle-schoolers for this project. In his experience, they’ve already been exposed to too many years of street life and wrong-headed schooling to make any more than minimal progress. And there were indications that the teachers selected for the Academy weren’t invested in the program.
“The idea was to create a process that moved a kid into a classroom where he could understand what [learning] was about,” Burns laments. “I don’t think any effort was made in that direction whatsoever. The idea was to create 180 days of lesson plans that developed more of a social idea—of socializing the kid rather than the reading, writing, arithmetic type stuff, and that didn’t happen. … When I went over there a few times, it was the same old stuff, packaged the same old way. You know, you see a bunch of kids in the back of the room playing cards. The typical stuff you see in a defeated school.”
Then there was the class-size issue. “They dumped a lot of kids in there, which pisses me off,” Burns says. “The class size should be around 10 for these kids. These are corner kids.” Instead, he laments, there were as many as 18 kids to a class.
CLIA’s Hickey says that, despite the original plan, Holley, the school’s principal, started adding troubled students from another school to the Academy, eventually ballooning it to 140 kids, “which was probably 100 more than it should’ve had.” He adds: “Vera loves all children. They were all her babies. Which doesn’t necessarily match up with the needs of a scientific pilot program.”
And then Holley left in the middle of the 2005-06 school year for undisclosed medical reasons. She remains on leave and was not reachable for comment.
Hickey acknowledges that there were problems getting funding from outside sources, and that the lack of codified entrance requirements for the program helped doom it. But he says it was the Baltimore school system that finally pulled the plug. When Hickey tried to talk to Holley’s replacement at Lemmel Middle School, he was told the district was moving the Academy to another site. “I’d still like to get some answers from the school system,” he says. “If I were a conspiracy theorist—” Hickey begins, then breaks off. “I don’t know.”
Numerous phone calls to school system leaders were not returned. What is known is this: The seed money has been spent, and no other funding seems forthcoming. CLIA is now preparing its final report on the Academy’s rise and fall to the Abell Foundation.
And Burns himself? What does this mean for him? He has three grown kids. He loves his job with The Wire, and it pays much more than he ever made as a cop or teacher. He and his wife will soon be moving out of the Baltimore area—to a bucolic spot in West Virginia, from which he can commute for Wire meetings and otherwise enjoy a quiet country life. So what is he thinking? Why keep banging his head against the limestone of Baltimore’s school bureaucracy?
Still looking in the direction of the city skyline, only partially visible through the half-draped window, he’s thinking about the next round of the fight. About how to come at the problem a different way. Wait until the dust settles after the November gubernatorial election, in which Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley is the Democratic front- runner, then start over again. Maybe couch the problem in terms of the looming health-care crisis represented by the city’s masses of endangered youth. Or show potential funders the math on how many tax dollars spent on the criminal justice and prison systems for corner kids could be saved with just a small education down payment on the front end. Network. Plan. Persuade somebody to rechannel some of the money earmarked for law enforcement.
Whatever Burns decides, he’s definitely not done with his plan to save corner kids. Just because it seems impossible doesn’t mean it can’t be done. As his longtime collaborator and friend David Simon notes: “This is a guy who’s fought a lot of losing wars. He’s not about choosing the winning side.” But, he adds, “he’s always on the right side.”
Vol. 18, Issue 01, Pages 32, 34-39Published in Print: September 1, 2006, as Burning Man