From To Sir With Love to that movie a couple years ago with Hillary Swank, Hollywood just can’t seem to resist a tale of an inspirational teacher who makes all the difference in the lives of a group of underprivileged young people. It’s an irresistible if misguided formula, one that appeals to our higher instincts, rather than our lizard brains: We all want to believe that, with a little bit of adult guidance, even the most troubled teen can blossom into a gifted student.
Think of tonight’s Frontline, “Fast Times At West Philly High,” as the PBS antidote to all that Oscar-baiting studio tripe. Although it lacks the triumphant Hollywood ending, the documentary is, in its own way, at least as inspirational as any of those maudlin films. Yes, it will warm your heart, but more importantly, it will also make you think critically about secondary education in the United States, about the short-sighted way we quantify “academic achievement” in this country.
“Fast Times At West Philly High” chronicles a year in the life of the automotive class at a rough inner-city school as they design and build a hybrid car to compete in the Progressive Automotive X Prize competition. They are the only high school team competing in the contest, and the students in the program are bright but under-motivated—or, as one student puts it, they’re the “oddballs and the smart ones.” There's Samantha Wright, who nearly dropped out of the 10th grade in order to raise her younger siblings; once she returned to school, she landed in a math class so remedial, she preferred to skip it rather than subject herself to the boredom of multiplication worksheets. Similarly, Justin Carter says he “cut every class” until he was invited to join the EVX Team, as they’re known, at West Philly High. Jacques Welles’ father beams with pride talking about his son’s transformation in the automotive class. “He became a leader without knowing it,” says the elder Welles, fighting back tears. “I love him for that.”
The teacher leading the group is Simon Hauger, a GE engineer-turned-educator motivated by the desire to engage high school students in a more active way. The kids clearly look up to him, but they’re also acutely aware of the white savior cliché. “Dealing with people trying to save us ‘troubled people,’ like People who treat urban youth in these bad schools as like people who need to be saved. Hauger would never treat me like that,” says team captain, Azeem Hill. “He’s like. 'I already know what you can do, so do it.'”
When the competition finally rolls around, West Philly’s underdog status as underdog becomes even more clear. As they pile into a passenger van for a 10-hour drive to the race track, Samantha asks, “How many other young urban African-American teens will be up there for us to socialize with?” It’s a rhetorical question, of course, because the answer is none. Instead, they go head-to-head with well-funded teams stacked with professional engineers from across the globe. One of the most impressive teams is led by Oliver Kuttner, an automotive developer who reminisces about his own experience as a troubled youth who found himself in shop class. Kuttner is clearly meant as a sort of role model for the students—a promise of what they might become.
At a scant 36 minutes, “Fast Times At West Philly High” is somewhat short on the details. It’s not entirely clear how the automotive class is structured, how the design process works, or, perhaps most critically, who’s funding the program. And while the documentary contains an implicit message about the value of project-based vocational instruction, it might have benefitted from the presence of a few policy wonks advocating for programs like this one. On the bright side, at least, “Fast Times At Philly High” is doing plenty of the work already.