West Philly High stars on Frontline documentary

When the “kit car” arrived in boxes a few years ago at West Philly High School, no one could have imagined where it would take both students and faculty. That journey is the subject of a Frontline documentary to air 10 p.m., Tuesday, titled “Fast Times at West Philly High.”


Students in the school’s automotive club designed and built two parallel, plug-in hybrid cars and entered them in the Progressive Automotive X International Competition in 2010. West Philly was the sole high school competing against corporations and colleges, such as MIT and Cornell, and made it to the competition’s semi-final round.

Simon Hauger, director of the school’s Sustainability Workshop, saw this seedling idea grow from an after-school club to a stand alone workshop where alternative fuel modes of transportation are built, tested, and reconfigured by teenagers.  The enterprising students have been key to fueling momentum for many automotive projects.

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“It’s one of the reasons I enjoy working with high school students,” Hauger said. “They don’t know what they don’t know and that’s usually seen in a lot of optimism.”  He smiled knowingly, adding, “It’s energizing to work with them.”

The documentary follows the students’ step-by-step as they prepared for the competition.

“We were really pleased with how well we did,” Hauger recalled. “Everybody took us seriously, they didn’t look at us as a high school team – they really saw us as a threat.”

Cars entered in the event had to achieve 100 mpg fuel efficiency along with a business plan detailing how the vehicles would be mass produced.

“In terms of my optimism, I saw it as a great opportunity to work on an actual vehicle that was driven by normal people,” said Brandon Cuthbert, a recent grad from the program. “To, you know, actually get under the hood.”

Cuthbert enters Widener University in the fall as a computer science major. He plans on keeping in touch with the workshop, which now includes students from both South Philadelphia and Furness high schools.

“I hope to be checking in on the projects with Mr. Hauger from time to time while still tackling world problems in college,” he noted.

Asked what made him think any of this was possible, Hauger laughed heartily at his own naiveté. “One of the reasons I enjoy working with high school kids is they don’t see the impossibilities – they only see possibilities. I have a real belief in the people I work with and the students I work with.”

Hauger drives a bio-diesel fueled Volkswagen Jetta which was built by his students.

Frontline’s “Fast Times at West Philly High” airs Tuesday night at 10 on WHYY TV.

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