‘Eye-opening’ TV show sends seven undercover adults back to high school in Topeka

The country is about to get an intimate look at what it’s like to be in high school these days through the eyes of seven young adults who went back to school in Kansas — undercover.

During the spring semester of 2017, the 20-somethings, who came from across the country, went to school with students at Highland Park High School in Topeka.

They enrolled as real students, went to classes, took tests, and went to sporting events, dances and graduation, all the while living in Topeka during filming. Cameras followed them and the students they interacted with.

What they saw, heard and experienced became an 11-part documentary series, “Undercover High,” premiering at 9 p.m. Tuesday on A&E.

Some of the issues the “undercover” students came face-to-face with — including the prolific use of social media and the scourge of 24/7 cyber-bullying — “was affirmation of information we already knew,” said Tiffany Anderson, superintendent of Topeka Public Schools.

“But the level at which some of these issues impact students was, for me, eye-opening.”

Producers wanted to spark a conversation about public education but from a fresh perspective, said Greg Henry, executive producer of Lucky 8 TV in New York. The series was produced through its subsidiary, Learning Tree Productions.

“We wanted to do it in a way that was unique, a little unorthodox, nontraditional, but would also show you the world in a way you’ve never seen it before,” Henry said.

Their search for a school that viewers could relate to led them to Kansas.

“One of the things that was important to us was that a viewer could see something of their own local high school in the school,” Henry said. “So we wanted to find a town that wasn’t too big but wasn’t too small, a high school that wasn’t a massive high school but not too small.”

Topeka’s place in public education history made it an attractive setting, too, Henry said, noting Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case in which justices ruled that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional.

Highland Park, with an ethnically and economically diverse student population, fit the bill.

Racially, the student body is one-third black, one-third Hispanic and one-third white, Anderson said.

Many of the students qualify for free and reduced lunches. Some live in foster care, some are homeless. “Highland Park certainly has a number of students attending who would be impacted by poverty in some fashion,” Anderson said.

Months before filming began in January 2017, producers met several times with Anderson, former Highland Park Principal Beryl New, school board members, parents and alumni to talk about the project.

Anderson was adamant that the filming not get in the way of the school’s primary mission: educating the kids. She wanted transparency, too. The school community knew from the get-go that there would be individuals at the school who were not actual students. But few people knew who they were until the end.

Henry wanted to make sure the show didn’t exploit the students. Only those who agreed to appear in the series are shown, he said.

“We didn’t want anyone to feel duped, but we also wanted to say: ‘We’re going to do this together. We’ll just be in high school together,’” he said. “We didn’t want to hide.”

The cameras, Anderson said, were a novelty for the first few days. But after a while, students just ignored them. Some of the students told her that crew members mentored them by giving them information about broadcasting and media work, a “beautiful connection,” she called it.

At first, people thought the seven embedded students were actors. But one was a youth pastor from Nashville. One young woman from New Mexico had been a teenage mom. A brother and sister from Georgia moved to the United States through DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

The seven embeds moved into apartments and homes around Topeka. Some of them rode the bus to school, a couple of them lived close by and walked. One young woman got braces to look younger. The production crew worked out of an office in downtown Topeka.

“These seven folks willingly put their lives on hold,” Henry said. “We took their cell phones and credit cards. And basically they ... cut themselves off from their lives.”

Social media and how high-schoolers use it quickly became an issue. One of the embedded students, a 22-year-old woman named Lina, heard that she had become the subject of sexual remarks in a group text soon after she arrived.

She told the principal, who found that some of the people involved weren’t even students in the district.

Participants, a few of whom graduated from high school just five years ago, were surprised by the constant cellphone use, and the pressures and stress that creates. There’s no real escape, one told Business Insider.

“One of the things that was sobering was the role of social media in these kids’ lives,” Henry said. “For me it is both a blessing and a curse on many levels.”