Gym class. Algebra. Study Hall. The cafeteria.
Depending on your own high school experience, those words are either comforting or horrifying. There is very little middle ground.
Would you go back?
That’s the question A&E is asking in its new reality show, Undercover High. The show follows seven young adults — ages 21 to 26 — who embed themselves for a semester at Highland Park High School in Topeka, Kansas.
The participants pose as typical students — attending classes, making friends and participating in school clubs and activities — to provide an inside look at what it’s like to be a teenager in today’s school system.
Producers say that the show isn’t a real-life 21 Jump Street or Never Been Kissed, and insist that the goals are loftier than just entertainment.
“We hope this show will be able to shed some light on what’s going on in high schools,” producer Greg Henry tells PEOPLE. “We weren’t looking to exploit anybody or to make this a stunt. I think if most parents knew what was going on in their kids’ high schools, they’d be surprised.”
The show’s participants include a former bully, victims of bullying, a teen mom, a youth motivational speaker, a set of siblings and a teen minister.
“Everyone had a very thorough background check,” says Henry. “And we were in constant contact. We trusted our participants not to do anything that would jeopardize the show, and we made sure that there wasn’t an opportunity for things to go wrong.”
It wasn’t a short-term experience — the participants matriculated into the school for a full semester. They had extensive training, as well as ongoing meetings with school psychologists and counselors. Only select school administrators and instructors knew the participants’ true identities.
So why create a show like this, where one wrong move could be disastrous?
“The whole point of this is to learn,” says Henry. “And to help today’s kids navigate a world that is very different than when we went to school. Everyone’s got a phone now; everyone has social media. It’s tough to be a high school student, and if parents watch this, they may be equipped with ways to help their kids.”
Undercover High premieres Jan. 9 at 9 p.m. ET on A&E.