'The Wire' Season Four: From overtesting to deficits, school dysfunction has only gotten worse

City Paper

When my wife started teaching in Baltimore City Public Schools in 2008, she figured she should watch season four of “The Wire,” which had come out a couple of years earlier and focused largely on the city schools. She got as far as episode three, when one middle school girl slashes another across both sides of her face in the middle of math class, leaving a puddle of blood on the tile floor. It was a little too real for my wife, who had just started teaching in a west-side middle school not that different from the fictional Edward J. Tilghman Middle School depicted on “The Wire.”

There actually is a Tench Tilghman Elementary/Middle School on Baltimore’s East Side, but it’s not clear if the fictional school is in any way based on the real Tilghman. It was actually filmed in the mid-2000s at what is now the Baltimore Montessori Public Charter Elementary (it was once Mildred Monroe Elementary School but was vacant when the season was shot). Walking through the halls at the Montessori school now, you can see the steps where Assistant Principal Marcia Donnelly crossed herself before opening the doors on the first day of school, the classroom—now a library—where ex-cop Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski tries his hand at teaching math, and the windowless basement room where cop-turned-teacher Howard “Bunny” Colvin and University of Maryland Professor David Parenti try to socialize some of the school’s hardest cases.

Allison Shecter, who founded the Montessori school in 2009, says she saw some similarities between Colvin and Parenti’s methods—which included getting the students to talk about things they knew, including drug-dealing, and working together to solve problems—and her school’s. “That kind of hands-on learning, that’s what we try to do here,” she says. Just as the program on the show is beginning to make progress, city bureaucrats worried about upsetting parents or hurting test scores put an end to it.

The name of Tilghman Middle School could be a nod to legendary Baltimore gangster Milton Tillman Jr., known as The Emperor, who in a career that included stints as a drug trafficker, longshoreman, political patron, real estate mogul, minority business owner, and ultimately (and currently) federal prisoner, practically embodies the entire “Wire” series. Such an allusion would jibe with one of season four’s most prominent ideas, that public schools are essentially a training ground for life on the street.

“We giving them a fine education,” Colvin says in episode eight. “This right here, the whole damn school, the way they carry themselves, it’s training for the street. The building’s the system, we’re the cops.”

And the school system, from the classroom all the way up to the governor’s office, is shown to be just as dysfunctional as the criminal justice system. Prez, last seen shooting a fellow cop in season three, returns here as an earnest first-year teacher, trying to navigate the deeply entrenched, troubled system. Any teacher can relate to the roller coaster of emotions when, after a frustrating day when it seemed that no one was paying attention to him, Prez finds a worksheet where a student had been studiously taking notes, only to see on the next desk that a student had etched “FUCK PREZ” into the wood.

On the school level, the dysfunction is most apparent in the obsession with MSA tests, which force schools to teach to the questions on the test in order to reach a certain passing level and maintain funding, even though it’s clearly shown to be a disservice to the students. Prez, a math teacher who is forced to teach reading comprehension leading up to test, observes that it’s directly parallel to the stats-juking within the police department. The problem of over-testing is arguably worse now, with the introduction of the Common Core and the new PARCC assessment, a longer test which all Maryland students in third through 12th grade had to take in March and May of this year (it’ll be consolidated to just May next year).

Problems of waste and mismanagement are represented in the school when Prez discovers boxes of new textbooks and a computer gathering dust in the basement. The mismanagement is shown to be system-wide when it’s discovered the school system is running a $54 million deficit (“How in Christ’s name do you lose $54 million!” newly elected Mayor Tommy Carcetti shrieks). It’s one of “The Wire’s” many prescient plot lines, since real-life Superintendent Gregory Thornton revealed in February that the schools were running a $60 million deficit—reality, in this case, was a few million worse than fiction, give or take inflation. The buck-passing continues when Carcetti goes to Annapolis to try to get funding for schools out of the Republican governor but ultimately “leaves money on the table” because he thinks accepting the money will hurt his chances to win a gubernatorial election in two years.

The action inside the school parallels the action outside. When Prez’s students learn that he’s an ex-cop, Namond Brice (son of jailed Barksdale soldier Wee-Bey) mimes being shot by cops and other students pretend to be cops beating him. When Prez claims that cops are there to help the community, one student says, “Y’all ain’t been in my community for a long time, ’cept to wail on people,” and it’s easy to see the connection to the deaths of Tyrone West and Freddie Gray in police custody. When Omar Little is arrested, he’s cuffed and put in the back of a police van without any restraints—something viewers 10 years ago probably didn’t think anything of, but post-Freddie Gray, it’s glaring.

Other plot points over the course of the season are oddly connected to recent events. At one point Bunk Moreland goes searching for bodies in Leakin Park—where the body was discovered in the case covered by last year’s hugely popular “Serial” podcast—and describes it as “where West Baltimore brings out its dead.” When someone suggests building a casino to raise revenue, one councilmember says, “I don’t want to see the kind of crime that comes with casinos,” and Council President Nerese Campbell, who is said to be modeled on Sheila Dixon (she becomes mayor when O’Malley stand-in Carcetti becomes governor) but is a dead ringer for Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, says, “Now you’re just sucking paychecks out of my community.” When two reverends accuse the police department of racism and a lack of accountability, Carcetti’s deputy campaign manager Norman Wilson says, “Last I checked, the department had a black commissioner and a black [Internal Affairs Division] director,” echoing the sentiments of those defending the real BPD in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death. And, like activists have recently said in response, one of the reverends says, “the problem is systemic.”

But, while season four touches on many Baltimore arenas, at it’s core, it’s about the schools. And while local educators may quibble about the details, Shecter says Simon gets the big picture right. “In a large system, dysfunction is bound to be the reality,” she says. And, as “The Wire” shows, that’s as true in schools as anywhere else.

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