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Chicago High School Makes Reality TV Debut, Some Parents Unhappy

By Patty Wetli | December 19, 2012 3:59pm | Updated on December 20, 2012 3:12pm

ALBANY PARK — Amid fears about how Von Steuben High School will be portrayed in a new television reality show, the principal has removed a link to a preview of the program from the school's website.

Von Steuben Principal Pedro Alonso reacted to the concerns of some Local School Council members that "High School Confidential" — which premiered Wednesday night on the national cable network WE TV — presents the high school in a poor light.

Alonso urged critics to be patient and watch several episodes before passing judgment. He praised the program, which follows a handful of Von Steuben students from freshman year through graduation, as informative.

"Give yourselves an opportunity to see what we can learn from it," Alonso told attendees at last week's LSC meeting. "What I was learning was the struggles kids go through."

The school's website had linked to a preview "trailer" of the series. The video clip, one of several "sneak peeks" posted by the cable channel to promote the show, depicted a number of dramatic moments — students contemplating abortion, getting tattoos and fighting.

Alonso was confronted with numerous complaints at the meeting, with one LSC member saying the show "gives a bad impression" and another adding that it paints Von Steuben, 5039 N. Kimball Ave., in a "terrible light."

The creator of "High School Confidential," which follows the students for four years, said such worries were unfounded.

"I would think that anybody seeing the show would think that these are teachers and administrators who work really hard for these students," Sharon Liese, who serves as the series' executive producer, said in an interview with DNAinfo.com Chicago.

"I think you'll see this principal as a very caring, involved principal," she said. "You'll see students who are very successful."

The program shows the students as "they go from 14 to 18," said Liese.

"There are so many changes emotionally and physically," she said. "Physically, you get to see it before your eyes, but that's just the tip of the iceberg."

The first season, which aired on WE in 2008, followed students at Liese's daughter's suburban Kansas City high school. The lengthy gap between Seasons 1 and 2 allowed Liese to film the entire high school careers of her Von Steuben subjects and more fully present their transformations, rather than one year at a time.

Liese chose Von Steuben after touring a number of facilities approved by Chicago Public Schools.

"All the schools I met with were willing," she said.

Von Steuben was chosen largely on the strength of its diverse student body in terms of race, socio-economics and academic abilities, she said.

"I wanted to show that kids span the range," said Liese.

She made her pitch to students at freshman orientation. Out of those who volunteered to participate, with parental approval, the final "cast" members were chosen with an eye toward telling a variety of stories.

"The selection process is always difficult. No matter who you follow, there will be a story there," Liese said. "I didn't want to have five cheerleaders or five with divorced parents."

Liese, who focuses on the lives of girls, said the female students at Von Steuben weren't that different from the girls in the suburban Kansas City school.

"Girls go through a lot of the same internal struggles whether urban or suburban," she said. "Every girl is trying to find herself. Every girl has the same inner turmoil and the same capacity to survive.

"This is any high school in America," she said of Von Steuben. "These are teen issues, these are not school issues."

Echoing Principal Alonso's words to Von Steuben's LSC, Liese said the primary goal of "High School Confidential" is to promote greater understanding of teenagers' inner lives and to prompt discussion between parents and their children.

"You can pass someone in the hallway, you can be locker mates, you can see someone every day. But you don't know what's going on under the surface," she said.

"It's hard to talk about tough issues. It's hard to say, 'Are you depressed?' Watch this show with your daughter and ask, 'How would you handle this situation?'"