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Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Wire and Baltimore Schools

The Wire centers on West Baltimore's "corner kids." Defined by the show
in contrast with "stoop kids," who grow up in the ghetto but are still
under their families' watch, corner kids make up a small minority of
young people, those abandoned by their families and committed to and
wrecked by the laws of the street. They're either unable to function in
schools as they exist in much of inner city America, or they're savvy
enough to know that the system doesn't serve them. The Wire asks, "What
do we do with these kids?"

And it answers that question with an experiment: In the show, the most
disruptive corner kids are separated from the rest of the student body
into their own classroom.

It's not as if this division is a stretch. The most troubled kids in
schools are often isolated from others, by official mandate or not.
Research documents the disturbing number of African American boys
nationwide who are shuffled into special education classes despite the
lack of evidence that they have learning disabilities. And many times,
the most defiant students just get kicked out of class and school.

Even educators committed to the achievement of students living in
poverty see the pull of a formal separation between students. Jeffrey
Robinson, principal of Baltimore Talent Development High School, says,
"I think most principals and most teachers would agree that if they
could get rid of one to two kids in every class, they could increase
achievement by a whole lot."

When Carla Finkelstein taught high school in West Baltimore, her
teaching team had some scheduling autonomy. Each year, the team debated
creating what they called a "knucklehead class" but couldn't
philosophically agree on the purpose. Would it be, she asks, "to get at
the root of what's really going on with those kids, or to ditto them to
death," keeping them busy with worksheets while creating calm learning
environments for their other students?

The Wire experiments with what Finklestein calls a public health
response to corner kids. In the show, a small number of students are
pulled from general classes and put together with multiple adults,
including mental health professionals, who work at the causes of these
students' disruptive behavior and their disengagement from school.

Finklestein, who now helps run a public charter school in Baltimore,
says that by playing out this classroom experiment over a whole season,
the show asks the questions "What would it look like if it were done
well? and "What social consequences would it have?" without providing
pat answers. "I think that was a smart piece for them to put in the
show, because that's a tremendous tension," Finklestein says. A minority
of kids come to school with such intractable issues, she adds, that "you
can't solve the problem just by giving the kid a tutor or giving them
access to a computer."

Whether teachers agree with The Wire's experiment or not, the story line
is crushingly on point: After the adults reach some level of
understanding of the corner kids' real values and fears, the program is
terminated because of the pressures of standardized testing.

Lisa Morehouse taught secondary English for twelve years in San
Francisco and rural Georgia. She is now a public-radio journalist and an
education consultant.

Source URL:

Beyond 'The Wire': A Baltimore School Changes the Channel
While the celebrated HBO series turns its lens on the city's failing
urban schools, one high school there strives for success.
by Lisa Morehouse
published 11/12/2007
To the world outside of inner city schools, teachers are often
ambassadors, and so they frequently talk only about their students'
struggles and the bureaucracies that entangle schools among themselves.
"I'm not going to tell stories about a lot of the tragedies or violence
or mismanagement," says former West Baltimore teacher Carla Finklestein,
"because I don't want to be responsible for furthering anybody's

But Finklestein and others in Baltimore public schools relish having the
critically acclaimed HBO television series The Wire's gaze fixed on
their world. Rather than simply exalting a white teacher, or alternately
demonizing and romanticizing struggling students, the program (whose
fourth season comes out on DVD in December 2007) requires its viewers to
engage with and learn about urban schools and the lives of people in

The fourth-season's story arc, set in a neighborhood middle school,
continues The Wire's unflinching look at institutions and urban poverty,
but it also explores how schools might be made to work for more kids,
even the most seemingly unreachable. Located in the same West Baltimore
neighborhood as the fictional school in The Wire, one small learning
environment, Baltimore Talent Development High School, is doing this
imagining in real life.

Antonio Brown, a senior at Baltimore Talent, appreciates the show's
focus on "corner kids," those with the least family support and most
street influence. For Brown, The Wire affirms the significance of his
academic achievement in a system in which the majority of students drop
out. Notes Brown, "It shows the struggle and the trouble that young
people in the city go through, for real, and what we have to overcome,
what we have to do to get out of our situations."

A Real Baltimore School
Part of Brown's success, surely, is that he attends a school that
doesn't operate like the one depicted on The Wire. The Baltimore City
Public Schools has started systemic reform efforts, incorporating middle
school students into K-8 schools and dividing large neighborhood high
schools into multiplexes, with small academies sharing larger campuses.

Baltimore Talent, one such school, is located across from a funeral home
in a West Baltimore neighborhood where blocks and blocks of structurally
beautiful row houses are boarded up and vacant. Ninety percent of the
students qualify for free-lunch or reduced-lunch programs. "When I look
out at the cafeteria, I say, 'If it weren't for this school, there'd be
35-40 kids who would not have made it to be seniors. I know that for a
fact," says Principal Jeffrey Robinson. "We have minimum dropouts
compared with other schools in the city. The dropouts are in the single
digits." According to John Snoddy, a counselor at the school, of the 570
students who have ever enrolled at Baltimore Talent, only 11 have
dropped out.

The Talent Development model came out of nearby Johns Hopkins
University's Center for Social Organization of Schools, which has Talent
Development sites in thirty-eight states. "The premise of the model is
double dosing," says Robinson. Citing academic failure as the most
significant reason for dropouts, he explains that Baltimore Talent
students double up on classes in key content areas, taking the
equivalent of two English courses and math classes in their ninth-grade
year, with skill-building courses in the first semester. Because most
Baltimore Talent students come in below grade level, this schedule
"better prepares them to succeed and pass and move on to tenth grade,"
explains Robinson.

The academic design assists in boosting students' achievement and
esteem, but the school's small size also allows kids to build unusually
tight relationships with Baltimore Talent's adults; teachers are on
teams with the same 60-75 students all day.

Big Man on Campus
This is Robinson's fourth year as principal of Baltimore Talent. Walking
to the school's cafeteria, he talks playfully but seriously with kids,
all of whom he knows by name. Robinson also stops a fight between middle
school students from the adjoining campus, but Baltimore Talent seems to
exist in a different, calmer plane. In the cafeteria, seniors in blue
shirts occupy one side; juniors in yellow shirts eat on the other. And
though they're pretty loud and silly, these students follow the posted
rules and listen when Robinson gets on the microphone to make daily

The school integrates character building into its curriculum, has
university and community members meet with students to review report
cards and plan improvements, and celebrates students' achievements
through ceremonies and postings and prizes. These things are "virtually
impossible to do in a big school," Robinson points out.

But he's careful not to overstate Baltimore Talent's success. "It's
frustrating at times. And we do get burned by the corner kids we're
trying to help," he says. "We put ourselves out there, talk to them, buy
them uniforms, and they can cuss us out and not show up. That comes with
the territory. You try not to take it personally. But you do save some
as well. You don't win every battle, but you do win some."

The Wire is one of Robinson's favorite shows, and he recognizes the type
of school in which the fourth season is set. "It was a very fair
representation of what it was like being in some schools," he says, "and
it just made me appreciate what we're doing here." Being real about
kids' lives is essential to the success of both the show and Baltimore

"We always tell kids, 'There are two rules,'" Robinson says. "'You got
your street law, and I'm not going to tell you how to behave once you're
in the street. But there's school law as well. I can't tell them to walk
away or do what's right in the street, because that's a different code.'
I tell them, 'When you're in school, we have our rules, and if you want
to stay here, you've got to abide by our rules.'" He says staff members
continually counsel students that there are ways out of poverty, but he
adds, "The only foolproof way I know is through education."

Lisa Morehouse taught secondary school English for twelve years in San
Francisco and rural Georgia. She is now a public-radio journalist and an
education consultant.

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