Wednesday, July 8, 2009

No Corner Left Behind

This was originally supposed to be published in the anthology Down to the Wire: An Anthology of Black Thought on HBO's Greatest Show Ever, but the publication was postponed indefinitely. So...'Dik is leaking it out. Here it is:

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No Corner Left Behind:
The Wire’s Accurate Portrayal of Successes and Failures of Baltimore Schools
By Sidik Fofana

Many dismiss the American public education as the burden of government spending. It’s easy to suck teeth at the overcrowded classes, the underpaid teachers, the problem children, and say it’s purely bureaucratic. Yet, the fact remains that not all inner city schools are failing. The fourth season of The Wire takes a closer look at the Baltimore education system. and shows that American public schools are a product of both successful and unsuccessful policies. Thus, the bigger challenge lies in actually corralling those sporadic breakthroughs and replicating them across the city.

At the beginning of season four, Roland “Prez" Pryzbylewski leaves the police force to become a math teacher at Edward Tilghman Middle School. Executive producer David Simon uses the former Baltimore detective’s career change as an opportunity to explore the complex hallways of public education as Namond, Dukie, Randy, Michael, and season four’s adolescent cast, head back to school after a summer spent shooting the breeze on the corner. Simon takes advantage of this new foray to show how both negligent education policies and the ills of ghetto life affect each other. In essence, viewers get two perspectives, one from the educators and the other from the students, filtered through the lens of the Baltimore Police Department.

The very first educational issue that season four brings up is one of numbers. The issue all boils downs to—another shortcoming of the system—the ratio of students to educators being dangerously high. Pryzbylewski, is accepted into a new teacher program, designed to help expedite his certification progress, but he has not actually completed the necessary classes towards his certificate. Yet, in a district where math and science teachers are hard to come by, a few unfinished credits does not deter Tilghman’s administration from hiring. Right from the first episode, viewers see how high turnover rates lead to the employment of under qualified staff. In fact, before Prez even steps in the building, Tilghman’s principal orders a fellow administrator to, “buzz him in before he changes his mind.”

Though many researchers link high staff turnover rates with the low student performance, the Wire shows that public schools are not filled with kids itching to drop out. The show’s corner boys are eager to return to school even if it’s not for academics. Randy is excited about canoodling with the eighth grade girls and Namond wants to show off his drug-financed back-to-school gear. As a matter of fact, the majority of Namond’s crew is anxious about their first day back. Michael and Dukie both live households with crack-addicted adults. Namond, who is gainfully employed through his father’s drug dealing connections, sees school as an escape from the hazardous uncertainties of the corner. They seem to view school as an escape from their dismal lives.

However, Sherrod, a truant eighth grader who rolls a shopping cart around the neighborhood filled with miscellaneous knick-knacks with a heroin addict named “Bubbles,” does go back for academic reasons. Bubbles hires Sherrod to handle some of his lighter transactions, but the orphaned youngster’s difficulty with simple arithmetic slows down business. To make up for his inadequacies, Sherrod, who hasn’t been to school regularly in years, decides to make another effort to re-enroll for the sake of Bubbles’s humble enterprises. “If you want, I could go to school, son,” he says to Bubbles at the end of episode 2. “I ain’t been for a while so I don’t even know if I can. But if you want me to go, it ain’t no thang.”

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The principle problem with public education in Baltimore or in any city for that matter is not the nightmarish bunch of apathetic and mal-adjusted youth, it’s the inconsistency of the teachers, administrators, and policy makers who supervise them. Passers by might think the former if they peeked into Mr. Prez eighth grade math class on the first day of school. His first attempt to explain an algebraic equation finds the class in utter disarray; students interrupt the lesson, a fight breaks out, everyone is out of their seats, and Randy strolls out of the classroom to sell candy, all in the first five minutes. Yet just when Prez’s classroom looks like the classic model of dysfunction, the more experienced Mrs. Sampson steps in and the students scuttle to their seats in obedience.

Mrs. Sampson’s intervention demonstrates a interesting dynamic. In any given public school, there’s a dichotomy between teachers, whether it’s inexperienced vs. experienced, the 8-to-3 folks vs. the overtime folks, the pushovers vs. the authoritarians. Most of the time, a school’s personnel represents a random lot of employees. It’s tough for administrators to whittle down candidates to the most effective educators and there is no doubt that, in between shortages of applicants and the impossibility of measuring qualifications, staff members enter the classroom with varying levels of training. On paper, Edward Tilghman may be a failing school, but it doesn’t lack positive qualities (Detective Colvin roams the hallways in one of his earlier visits and observes interactive classes as well as unengaged classes). Tilghman’s weakness is not anarchy. It’s inconsistency.

The Wire does not shy away from displaying the behavior problems at Edward Tilghman Middle School. No matter how high functioning the class, there are a few students who pose extreme disciplinary threat to the learning environment. Upon several visits, Detective Colvin determines that the students fall into one of two categories: “stoop kids” vs. “corner kids.” The stoop kids are the students who obey their guardians, stay near their front porch, and are not allowed to roam into the concrete wilderness of Baltimore. The corner kids linger outside until after the street lamps dim and are exposed to Baltimore’s crime and drug infested streets.

The focus on the corner kids reveals The Wire at its most socially poignant. By episode four, the spotlight shifts from the classrooms to a new pilot program Tilghman sponsors for its small population of students with extreme social adjustment issues. The program, in conjunction with a study conducted by David Parenti of the Sociology Department at the University of Maryland, seeks to isolate the extreme discipline problems from their regular classrooms and teach them basic social interaction skills. Namond, along with nine other “problem children” are placed in the class.

The classroom immediately becomes a microscopes of deficiencies of Baltimore’s public school system. For one, the ten student class eight boys and only two girls. It’s no secret that the achievement gap of black males in education remains a cause for concern. In Baltimore alone, 38.5 percent of high school students graduated in 2006 of which African-American males were only a time fraction. Also most of the students in Parenti’s study, of which Namond Brice is one, are performing below grade level in Mathematics and English. Brice, as shown throughout season four, lives at home with his money hungry mother who strong-arms him into following in his father’s drug-pedaling footsteps. She berates Namond for not being as cold-hearted as his old man when it comes to hustling, making it very clear to him t school work comes secondary to dealing narcotics. Although Brice shows a subtle yearning to escape this degenerative family business, his own mother shows him very little support.

The same predicament befalls the other young black males spotlighted in season four. Namond’s buddies, Duquan Weems and Michael Lee, are sons of crack fiends who pawn their children’s clothes and sell the household’s grocery items to maintain their habits. Both Duquan and Michael take school seriously, but their dire home situations often impede their focus on academics. When Sherrod, the orphan under the care heroin fiend Bubbles, reports for his first day of school, administrators place in eighth grade despite the fact that he has missed school for several years. His impractical social promotion heightens Sherrod’s feelings of academic inadequacy and by the end of the episode, he is hopping out of the school window and running back to the block.

Truancy is another issue that the Wire takes time to divulge. Even with the dearth of resources, administrators at Tilghman make painstaking efforts to reach out to that population of students. Yet, the school’s initiative, however well-intentioned, is thwarted by bureaucratic policies. For instance, Assistant Principal Marcia Donnelly, use the janitor’s payroll and hires Cutti, an ex-convict turned upstanding member of the community, as a truant officer. Cutti, latches onto the cause and dutifully rounds up Tilghman’s absentees from slums all over the city only to learn he has to let most of them go because they’ve already fulfilled their minimum one day of attendance per month mandated by the board of education.

Unjustified bureaucratic decisions also hinder the pilot program, which was making progress throughout the season. Just when eighth grader Namond Brice is getting adjusted to his Tilghman’s behavior code, administrators mitigate his social progress by obligating him to pass states exams. They cite the No Child Left Behind Act, a federal mandate passed in 2001 by George Bush Jr., which increases educational standards and accountability for school districts. It ensures that schools systematically test students with regional exams to ensure each of them meet state standards.

For Namond and the other students on the Wire, systematic exams come in the form of the yearly Maryland School Assessment (MSA), which tests for reading and math achievement. Only 22 percent of Tilghman’s student body passed the exam the year before, Mrs. Donelly requests her staff to teach ELA in every class to prepare for this year’s test. This leaves Mr. Prez teaching a diffident lesson on Greek literature to a room of drowsy eighth graders. The he systematic testing end up assessing the teachers more than the students as educators scramble to teach to the exam.

However, at the end of the day, the Wire remains optimistic about one of America’s most inconsistent education systems. For all the achievement gaps and the emotionally mal-adjusted children, season four shows educators using innovative approaches to address high needs students. By the end of the season, it’s redeeming to see Mr. Prez teaching his eighth grade class probability with dice and the class internalizing the lesson with more ease given the skill’s real life applications (Randy uses Prez’s advice on playing the odds and wins money in a corner dice game).

The Tilghman staff even makes considerable bounds with the emotionally challenged students in the ten student pilot class. Abandoning erudite theories of classroom management and gearing the program towards developing social etiquette, the supervisors better meet the class’s emotional needs. From Detective Colvin and the students at the University of Maryland, the children learned communication (discussing the rules of drug “slinging”), team building (building the Eiffel Tower from a kit), and even social interaction (eating at a fancy restaurant downtown). The University Maryland staff learns about each child’s life away from school and its influence on his or her academic ability.

If anything, the Wire still finds promise in the fragmented Baltimore board of education. The city’s education system is not totally dilapidated. It’s swinging pendulum between success and failure manifests itself in the Michael Lee’s who forgo school for the street life and the Namond Brice’s who eventually escape it. The show also recognizes the Mr. Prez’s and the Mr. Colvin’s, who refuse to let children slip through the cracks and thus rekindle the optimism in Baltimore’s education policies. The next step is leaping from one success to systematic successes.

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