The cable channel A&E announced in May 2017 that it would launch a documentary series about the modern American high school, but with a twist: There would be seven young adults, in their late teens or early 20s, who would be going back as undercover students.
The concept was intriguing, with A&E making clear that it had the support of the Topeka, Kan., school district and the principal of Highland Park High School, a racially and socioeconomically diverse school with its share of challenges.
Well, the end result is ready for prime time. “Undercover High” premieres on Tuesday on A&E at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific times. The first episode will be followed by a special one-hour discussion at 11 p.m. ET and PT between the show’s mental health experts and some of the participants.
I viewed the first episode, which explains the concept and introduces four of the seven undercover students as they enter Highland Park High.
The show opens with Beryl New, the principal, explaining that her school is the typical American high school, with clubs and sports. But a few years ago, administrators noticed that a lot of students were at risk. And with the explosion of teenagers’ use of mobile devices and social media, students were increasingly tuning out teachers and other adults.
“We have swearing at teachers, disrespect in class, and a lot of issues with social media,” says Danny Ackerman, the assistant principal, who along with New and Topeka Superintendent Tiffany Anderson, are the only three district officials aware that there are undercover students.
New tells the undercover students in a private meeting before the semester starts: “I’ve always wondered what a student will not tell us [administrators] that they are willing to tell a peer.
(Highland Park High has a new principal this year, and New is now listed as the district’s personnel manager.)
So here are some basics to understand the execution of the concept. Camera crews flooded the school for one semester, so students knew there was a documentary being made. They just didn’t know about the undercover students. Nor did teachers and other school personnel save for New, Ackerman, and Anderson.
The undercover students all came from other areas, and were chosen for diversity and background-checked. They moved to Topeka, gave up their own phones, credit cards—their identities, really—to become students again. The producers helped them, giving them not only new phones under their temporary identities, but setting up Facebook pages for them so they could make connections with their new school mates.
In the first episode, we meet Erin (her real name), who is 25 but looks younger. She gets temporary fake braces on her teeth to appear closer to high school age. That’s commitment.
When she enters the school, Erin notes that it’s been 10 years since she was actually a high school freshman. “That’s crazy to think,” she says.
Erin is a college graduate who ends up back in Algebra 2, which she says she failed twice in her real high school, and things don’t look promising for her undercover semester as she appears totally befuddled. Later, Erin ends up at a somewhat misfit lunch table where it seems that 12 conversations are going on at once.
Daniel, 23, is from Nashville, and is a youth pastor trying to mentor high school students in his community. At Highland Park High, he enters digital photography class and notices that most students are on their phones, including those who openly smart off to the teacher. (New, the principal, explains that phones are allowed but are supposed to be used only related to lesson plans. That’s not the reality.)
The stars of the first episode are Jorge and Lina, a real live brother and sister from Georgia, who are 25 and 23, respectively. Jorge was openly gay for his last two years of high school, and says he was bullied constantly. He approaches his undercover assignment gingerly, not revealing his sexual orientation in this episode.
Lina makes a friend in one class and quickly exchanges social media contact information. “If we want to fit in, we have to fit in in social media,” she says.
But soon her info is being passed around among boys, who hit on her. She accidentally gets added to a message group where some of the boys talk of trying to score with her, and one even mentions “rape,” which of course greatly concerns her.
Lina also notices the racial lines drawn among the students, with most Hispanics seemingly hanging out together, as do most African-Americans, at least in Lina’s perception.
Highland Park High was 41 percent Hispanic, 28 percent African American, 21 percent white, and about 10 percent other in 2016-17, according to a state report card.
At the end of the first day for these four undercover students, a drained Erin says, “One in the books, only 119 more days to go.”
The 11-episode season continues next week with, presumably, the introduction of the remaining four undercover students. While some of the first undercover students faced curious questions from their fellow students, just being the new kids in class, no teacher or student seemed too dubious of them.
Anderson tells the undercover students in their private meeting, “It’s going to be interesting to see how well your identity is maintained.”
Perhaps that is foreshadowing, perhaps not. But the first episode certainly hooked me to tune in the rest.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.