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Reality TV cameras pick up the struggles of Von Steuben High girls

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Season premieres with two back-to-back episodes from 8 to 10 p.m. Wednesday on WE tv. Episodes air two at a time every Wednesday through Jan. 9.

Updated: January 20, 2013 6:21AM

Like many of their peers across the country, Von Steuben High School’s class of 2012 grappled with teenage sex, pregnancy, parental problems and popularity contests.

Unlike their peers, 10 of those students at the North Side magnet school were followed by TV cameras throughout their high-school tenure.

Thousands of hours of footage have been distilled into eight episodes of “High School Confidential,” starting its second season at 8 p.m. Wednesday on WE tv.

The first season, which aired on the female-focused cable net in 2008, followed a dozen high-school girls in a suburb of Kansas City.

“This time, I wanted an urban setting,” said producer Sharon Liese. The Chicago Board of Education gave her a few options to consider. “I chose Von Steuben because it seemed to offer the most diversity. Not just ethnic diversity. Economic diversity.”

The Chicago cast includes six Latinas, three whites and one African-American girl. They all start out at the high school formally known as Frederick Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center. They don’t all finish there. One 16-year-old gets pregnant and ends up at an alternative school. Another one begrudgingly transfers to a Catholic school after her father finds profanity scribbled in her yearbook.

“High School Confidential’s” first season delved into some heavy topics: abortion, suicide, underage drinking, cutting, anorexia. One cast member discovered she had a brain tumor during filming.

“We have a lot of the same issues this time,” Liese said, adding that there’s one big difference between the two seasons: violence.

“I don’t know if it was the number of years that had passed since the first season or the urban location, but the presence of violence was much more apparent to me,” Liese said about the Chicago installment. “Violence in the neighborhood. Violence in the home. One of the girl’s dads was arrested and went to jail for hitting her mom. There’s a verbally abusive boyfriend who’s jealous and gets into a fight at school. We have that on camera.”

Liese partnered with Chicago-based Towers Productions and Evolution Media in L.A. to film the girls both in and out of the school. Crews dropped in about every five weeks to film for seven to 10 days. Each of the girls was given her own camera, too.

“It’s a mix of very intimate, raw, honest interviews combined with lots of authentic, in-the-moment footage,” Liese said.

“High School Confidential” was Liese’s first big project. The rookie filmmaker got the idea to go inside the hallways of Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park, Kan., when her daughter enrolled as a freshman.

“I’m hoping this will create dialogue with parents and their daughters,” Liese said. “It’s easier to talk about things when you have a third object to reflect off of. You can say, ‘How do you think that girl handled that situation?’ ”

This isn’t the first time TV cameras have shadowed Chicago-area high schoolers.

“American High” told the stories of 14 Highland Park High School students over the course of the 1999-2000 school year. Fox bailed on the series after a few episodes, but PBS picked it up. It won an Emmy in 2001 for best non-fiction reality program.

A decade earlier, Fox aired the documentary series “Yearbook” following the ups and downs of several seniors at Glenbard West in Glen Ellyn.

Both programs covered the course of a single school year. “High School Confidential” hung around for the entire duration, from freshman orientation until graduation.

“To see the physical and emotional change — in four weeks you’re going to see four years of change,” Liese said. “It’s pretty amazing.”

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