‘Frontline: Fast Times at Philly High’ Follows a New Kind of Shop Class

“There was a need to engage students,” says Simon Hauger, a math and science teacher at West Philly High. “The normal curriculum was boring and kids are disinterested.” His answer was cars. More specifically, as recounted in the new Frontline, Fast Times at Philly High, the answer was hybrid vehicles, designed and built by Hauger’s Hybrid EVX Team. Comprised of 20 students in an after-school program, they’ve been building successful, prize-winning vehicles for 12 years, competing with other high schools, universities, and professional teams.

Premiering 17 July on PBS, Debra Morton’s short documentary follows the EVX Team’s participation in the 2010 Automotive X Prize, which takes them from the garage at Philadelphia’s Academy of Automotive and Mechanical Engineering to Michigan International Speedway. Here they enter cars in the Mainstream and the Alternative classes, both using unusual hybrid drivetrains.

Unlike the usual Frontline investigation, Fast Times at West Philly High mixes observation and interview to showcase the kids’ sense of themselves as competitors and teammates. Most of them were skipping classes or assessed as failures before they joined the program. Now they’re on honor rolls. Azeem Hill explains that Hauger’s approach is respectful, unlike those “people trying to save us troubled people, people who treat like urban youth in these bad schools as people who need to be saved.” Aware of their uncommonness, the EVX kids focus on working together, making use of their disparate backgrounds and skills. Loading up for the drive to Michigan, Samantha Wright admits she’s not looking forward to a 10-hour drive with a bunch of boys, but, she reasons, “I guess it’ll be pretty fun, jpkes and whatnot.” As the film reveals, they do have fun, and also learn and serve as role models, impressing the 21 other finalists for the X Prize.

RATING 7 / 10