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'The Wire' Tackles Troubled Baltimore Schools

The Wire has been described as "the most demanding, intelligent hour on television."

The show's long-anticipated fourth season begins Sunday on HBO.

In its first three seasons, the gritty police drama set in Baltimore — and largely shot there — exposed viewers to some of the city's most intractable problems: its drug wars, corruption at its ports, the dysfunctionality of its police department.

Season four tackles yet another: the city's public school system, cited as one of the worst in the nation. One of the story lines this season follows a group of middle-school students and their goings-on — in and out of school.

The show's writer and producer is Baltimore native Ed Burns. He spent seven years as a teacher in the inner city, after serving 20 years with the Baltimore police.

So Burns has had plenty of experience with kids leaving the classroom ... and making their way onto the street.

Burns says that was the genesis of the season, to "go back to when choices are made."

Initially, the show's writers thought they would focus on a high school. But then they realized that by high school, many choices were already made. Middle school is a "testing ground for the street," Burns says.

"I don't think an audience could handle going into a middle school in Baltimore for a week," he says.

"This is the tragedy of their school experience. They spend time in class warring with the teacher. They're suspended. They go to time-out rooms, and then they hit the streets, and within five years, a lot of them are victims of murders or are committing murders," he says.

Burns hopes the show's harsh critique of the school system will entertain, disturb and ultimately teach audiences something about kids.

He wants them to understand that when kids like those portrayed on the show go in the directions they do, it's not from personal choice, but from other doors shutting around them.

"The trick is to keep all the doors open," he says. "If we can begin to understand that, then maybe we've done something."

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