Education

A&E’s ‘Undercover High’ Series Puts Young Adults Back in High School

By Mark Walsh — January 08, 2018 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP
Education Massachusetts National Guard to Help With Busing Students to School
250 guard personnel will be available to serve as drivers of school transport vans, as districts nationwide struggle to hire enough drivers.
1 min read
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass. Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, activated the state's National Guard to help with busing students to school as districts across the country struggle to hire enough drivers.
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass.
Michael Dwyer/AP