`Undercover High,’ filmed in Topeka high school, shows challenges facing students, teachers

A screening Monday of the first episode of the television show “Undercover High,” which was filmed at a Topeka high school, and panel discussion that followed showed some of the serious challenges that students and teachers face in public education.

Seven young adults, ages 21 to 26, attended Highland Park High School and posed as students for a semester last year in the A&E Network docuseries of 12 episodes that starts airing at 9 p.m. Tuesday.

Although just a few years out of high school themselves, the undercover students said they were amazed at how much had changed since they had attended school, especially in the use and misuse by students of social media. At the end of the first episode, participants in a chat room openly discussed wanting to sexually assault one of the undercover students.

In a panel moderated by national broadcaster Soledad O’Brien at Highland Park, teachers, students, and professionals said the inside-look at Highland Park HS was probably typical of many high schools across the country and that many of the problems students face often start with poverty.

D’andre Phillips, a homeless student who graduated from Highland Park and is now a freshman at Pittsburg State University, said some students must overcome extreme poverty and families that have little structure. Asked how he overcame his situation, Phillips said teachers and staff at Highland Park helped pull him up. “When they invested in my future, so did I.”

Phillips became a 4.0 student while excelling in sports and student government. He is also enlisted in the Army National Guard and is studying to become a teacher.

Topeka USD 501 Superintendent Tiffany Anderson said there are approximately 600 homeless students in the 13,000-student district.

Anderson and other administrators said they welcomed the opportunity for Highland Park to be featured in the show because they wanted to learn more about their students. Anderson said it is crucial for teachers to “walk in our student’s shoes.” The screening was well attended by Topeka 501 board members, teachers, administrators, students, parents and education advocates.

Anderson and the Topeka school board have implemented a strategic vision to ensure that all students graduate high school and are ready for a career or college. She also said the state needs to adequately fund schools.

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