I'M A SUCKER for a love story. I just never thought I'd see one on "Frontline."
The weekly PBS documentary showcase rivals only "60 Minutes" in its Very Important Coverage of news and public affairs. The last thing you'd expect while watching "Frontline" is to reach for a Kleenex while pressing your hand to your heart and sniffling, "I LOVE these guys…"
But if you watch Tuesday night's "Frontline" premiere of "Fast Times at West Philly High," I promise that you, too, will be tearful and smitten.
And you will ask, "Shouldn't more teachers be doing what these people are doing?"
The gripping, 36-minute documentary by Swarthmore filmmaker Debra Morton chronicles the three-year quest of students at West Philly High School to win 2010's Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE.
The contest required entrants to create an affordable, alternative-energy car that gets 100 miles per gallon and can be mass-produced. Contestants were also required to submit a business plan detailing where and how their car would be made and marketed.
The prizes were huge: $5 million for the best four-door economy car; $2.5 million each to two winners in a two-seater category. Students in West Philly High's after-school automotive club submitted applications in both categories.
Which was preposterous. No other high school was participating in the global competition, let alone any high school as broke, chaotic and academically miserable as West Philly.
Simon Hauger, the West Philly math teacher who ran the after-school automotive club, didn't expect the kids to win. He just wanted to give them a real-life project that required application of the concepts that were boring them numb in the classroom.
"Almost every large urban [school] district is dysfunctional. Philadelphia is at the highest level of dysfunction," Hauger tells filmmaker Morton. "There was a need to engage students. The normal curriculum is boring and kids are disinterested."
Critically, in his after-school club, Hauger refused to do something that well-intentioned adults do all too often in Philly's poorest and worst-performing schools: underestimate the kids who attend them.
As student Azeem Hill notes in "Fast Times," most people regard kids in "bad" schools as needing to be saved. But not Hauger.
"He would never treat us like that," says Hill. "He treats us like, ‘I already know what you can do, so do it.' "
And, oh, how the kids on the West Philly Hybrid X team leapt to hit that lifted bar in pursuing the $10 million Progressive X Prize.
They did not win. But, astoundingly, in the run-up competition, they beat out competitors with glittering science, technology and engineering credentials, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And they came this close to besting teams from Cornell University, Tesla Motors and Tata Motors, to name a few heavyweight contenders with access to massive resources and money.
As student Jacques Welles marvels to filmmaker Morton: "We can be just as innovative as the CEOs of Ford, General Motors, Honda and Nissan. And we don't even have diplomas yet!"
Tellingly, so many of the students on the West Philly Hybrid X team did, indeed, go on to get their diplomas — an outcome that, before the competition, was unlikely for at least two students profiled in "Fast Times."
Justin Carter admits cutting class every day because, "I was just a guy who showed up when I wanted to show up. My life wasn't going the way I expected it to. So if nobody was going to care, why should I?"
Being on the team, though, gave him something to care about. For the first time, he wanted to go to school.
Samantha Wright spoke of missing 30 straight days of school to baby-sit her little sister while their mom worked. She says no truancy officer ever asked why Samantha wasn't in class. Hauger coaxed her into joining the Hybrid X Team but made her participation conditional on her attending class. Like Justin Carter, she, too, began showing up every day.
"Kids are dying to be engaged," says Hauger, who left West Philly High School last year to found, with several partners, a pilot program called The Sustainability Workshop. Located at the old Philadelphia Navy Yard, it's part of a 22-member consortium funded by a $100 million-plus grant from the Department of Energy to research and develop green technology.
The Sustainability Workshop replaces the school district's standard, senior-year curriculum with one that requires kids to create projects that try to solve environmental problems. Last year, kids created housing out of shipping containers, figured out how coax people into replacing their old-fashioned light bulbs with LED ones and designed and built two models of electric bikes.
"Schools need new ways to reach kids, and I believe we've found it," says Hauger.
If you're not sure, just watch "Frontline." Hauger will make a believer out of you.
"Frontline" airs tonight, July 17, at 10 on WHYY-TV.