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FRONTLINE: Fast Times At West Philly High

Students from West Philly High push their hand-crafted hybrid sports car on to a Michigan speedway as they compete to win a $10 million dollar prize.
Courtesy of FRONTLINE
Students from West Philly High push their hand-crafted hybrid sports car on to a Michigan speedway as they compete to win a $10 million dollar prize.

Airs Tuesday, July 17, 2012 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV

Can a group of inner-city high school students from one of Philadelphia’s toughest neighborhoods beat the odds and build the next great super-hybrid car? In FRONTLINE’s "Fast Times At West Philly High," a team of young auto builders takes on some of the world’s smartest and richest engineers to compete for a $10 million prize.

The Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize is a global competition that challenges teams to invent cars of the future. They must be safe, reliable, street-ready and get at least 100 miles per gallon. The group from West Philly is the only high school team to ever make it this far in the prestigious and rigorous competition.

FRONTLINE follows the teens as they help build two fast and innovative vehicles during an after-school program. They are led by math and science teacher Simon Hauger, who started the program as a way to keep at-risk kids in school.


“The basic assumption is that if you give students a problem to struggle with, something that’s real and relevant, it gets them thinking about what they’re passionate about and interested in,” says Hauger, who pushes his students to solve real-world problems through hands-on learning. “They take ownership over their learning. They get excited about it. They create a vision for themselves, moving forward as a learner, and that’s really what we want.”

The quest for the X PRIZE provides lessons in the power of dedication and passion and the challenges of technological innovation. “If an inner-city high school with no money can create a car that gets 80 or 100 miles per gallon, then I think we’re accomplishing something big. I think we’ll make history,” West Philly team member Samantha Wright tells FRONTLINE.

Also in this hour, the first of two FRONTLINE reports to be broadcast this year on solutions to America’s dropout epidemic. Nationwide, 7,000 students drop out every school day.

In "The Middle School Moment," FRONTLINE reports on new evidence that suggests the make-or-break moment for high school dropouts may actually occur in middle school. The film explores how one Bronx school is using a novel form of data collection and analysis to predict and prevent dropouts.

The Middle School Moment is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen, a public media initiative supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help local communities across America identify and implement solutions to address the dropout crisis.


FRONTLINE is on Facebook, and follow @frontlinepbs on Twitter. The West Philly Hybrid X Team is on Facebook.

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FRONTLINE's "Fast Times At West Philly High" features students and teachers from West Philadelphia High School, a public high school serving one of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in Philadelphia, defy expectations as they design and build two super-hybrid cars for international competition and compete for the chance to be part of a technological revolution. In summer 2010, the high school’s EVX Team raced against mega-sized auto manufacturers, multimillion-dollar start-ups and university teams from around the world in the Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE competition.