The premise of “Undercover High” seems like it could be ripped from a Hollywood movie plot, like “Never Been Kissed” or “21 Jump Street,” but this is real life: Young adults in this new docuseries go back to high school to discover the challenges and complexities of being an American teen in this day and age.
“We really felt like public education in America wasn’t being talked about,” executive producer Greg Henry told ABC News about the concept for the show. “It was really how do you pierce the teen bubble?”
A&E’s new show sends seven young adults, ranging in age from 21 to 26, back to school for the Spring 2017 semester at Highland Park in Topeka, Kansas. They embedded in the school with their new peers and made friends, but their true identities remained anonymous to the students, faculty and even each other.
Highland Park principal Beryl New told ABC News that she was interested in gaining insights into her student’s lives.
“The kids often would confide in me about situations, but you know I think as an adult you always recognize there’s going to be a disconnect and wonder what may be going on that you don’t know about,” she explained.
New was one of the few administrators who knew about the experiment.
“Well I won’t say worried, but I will say aware because the students in this building are like my children or my grandchildren,” New said. “So I definitely always would maintain this level of protection.”
The participants were selected after “thorough background checks, extensive training and ongoing meetings with psychologists,” A&E said in a press release.
The young adults who posed as students include a former bully, victims of bullying, a teen mom, a youth motivational speaker, a set of siblings and a teen minister.
Jorge, 25, one of the young men who went undercover, told ABC News he was worried that some of the issues he faced in his former years as a high school student would resurface.
“When I was in high school, I was bullied. And it was because I was gay,” he said. “So my biggest fear coming into this project was reopening those doors that I had locked and put away so many years ago.”
Another participant, Nicolette, 22, was surprised by how much fellow students asked her about being on social media.
All of the participants noticed how social media was so pervasive with the high school students.
“And it doesn’t just end at school. It continues, you know, when you go home,” Nicolette said. “So you’re basically being judged twice as much, and all day, every day.”
The six-month experience also gave the participants an opportunity to help their younger peers through difficult times in their lives.
“When I see a student that has potential, the pastor comes out and just wants to say, ‘You got somethin’ like, you have this.’ It was so hard to hold that back,” Daniel, a 24-year-old youth pastor, told ABC News. “So it was just — it was so hard to hold back who I really was — To not be the adult.”
Although their age and identity were kept a secret, Nicolette said her friendships “were all real.”
“We were going into this to help them, to raise awareness, to make a difference in not just this school, but all the schools in this country,” she said.
Some of the students, like Antonio Pead, said they were surprised to learn their experience was part of a bigger project.
“When it was over I was a little mad just because like how close we were getting,” Pead admitted.
Many other students at Highland Park said the participants had a real impact on them throughout their time as “classmates.”
“They really helped me a lot. I feel like I’m a completely different person,” Highland Park student D’Andre Phillips said. “You know [from] starting this show to now.”