Oct. 24, 2006 — -- For David Simon and Ed Burns, writers and producers of the HBO series "The Wire," set in Baltimore, the dramas they craft have less to do with fiction than cold, hard facts.
Simon spent 13 years as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun; Burns was a Baltimore homicide detective, then became a teacher. They write about what they know: the gritty reality of the crumbling city they live in and love.
In its last three seasons, "The Wire" has examined the drug war, disappearing jobs and urban politics. This year the show tackles a complicated subject seldom touched by television drama: the dysfunction of big-city education.
In this season's episodes, Simon and Burns focus on the middle school years in which children so often get caught between the classroom and the streets. "Middle is the place where all the rubber hits the road," says Simon, the show's creator and executive producer. "By high school, a good percentage of kids are missing, particularly the at-risk kids. They're no longer in the high schools."
"The Wire" tries to depict the powerful magnets that pull at middle-school kids, says Burns. "Unfortunately, the major pull is the drug dealer. He's the man in the neighborhood that has what nobody else has, which is standing, money and power. And the kids naturally want to go in that direction."
The middle schools must compete with the drug dealer, along with pervasive poverty, street violence and abusive family settings, all of which pull at children just entering their teen years.
Throughout its 13 episodes, "The Wire" raises a fundamental question: Which education is most relevant to the lives of middle school kids? That received in the schools or on the streets?
Burns says neither his experiences as a cop or in the infantry during Vietnam prepared him for teaching in Baltimore's city schools.
Actor Jim True-Frost plays a young math teacher nicknamed "Prez" -- because the students cannot pronounce his full name, Pryzbylewski -- who finds himself unable to control his class. The character is drawn from Burns' own experiences.
The new chief executive of Baltimore schools, Charlene Cooper Boston, says "The Wire" is not a fair representation of the city's middle schools. Indeed, when Boston invited ABC News along for a tour of Winston Middle School, the classes appeared orderly and the children well-behaved.
But even at Winston, designated a college prep middle school, state test results show barely half the students score "proficient" at reading and only 25 percent perform similarly in math.
According to Boston -- the city's third chief education executive in six years -- middle schools struggle with things beyond their control. "We've done studies of incoming students, and we found that many of them are below level, even coming into school. We start out at a disadvantage. These students don't have family and community structures that would offset some of the negative influences that we find."
Those influences are clear in neighborhoods where liquor stores are plentiful and libraries long abandoned. Simon says his drama explores the disconnect between the lives young teens live in places like Baltimore and the education they receive in the schools.
"The show is about being honest with what opportunity is in America, and the truth about this country right now is, we don't need 10 or 15 percent of our population," he says. "The jobs that used to define a city like Baltimore no longer exist."
Unlike so many television programs, "The Wire" does not promise a quick fix or a Hollywood happy ending. The drama is often bleak to a fault. But its creators -- the former cop-turned-teacher and the veteran reporter -- argue that this season's episodes, fictional or not, reveal an uncomfortable truth about a dysfunctional institution that television too often ignores.