Fast Times at West Philly High(0:31) On July 17, disadvantaged high school students compete for a $10M auto-building prize.

Tonight’s FRONTLINE Will Make You “Tearful and Smitten”

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We can’t think of a lede that’s better than the one written today by the Philadelphia Daily News‘ Ronnie Polaneczky:

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…”

Polaneczky is talking about tonight’s film, Fast Times at West Philly High, which chronicles a group of inner-city high school students as they prepare for the 2010 Progressive Automotive X Prize competition. And by “prepare” we mean “build two super-hybrid cars from scratch that can get 100 miles-per-gallon.” And by “competition” we mean “go head-to-head with some of the most talented (and well-funded) engineers and universities around the world.”

The total prize money up for grabs? $10 million.

It’s no small feat for the students and their teacher, Simon Hauger, who built the program from scratch to reach some of West Philly High’s smartest, and most disengaged, kids. Polaneczky writes:

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.’”

Along with Hill, you’ll meet Samantha Wright, a student brimming with smarts who missed school due to family obligations; Justin Carter, who was bullied and admits to skipping out on most of his classes during 9th grade; and Jacques Wells, a student who fell in love with cars at West Philly High.

“We can be just as innovative as the CEO’s of Ford, GM, Honda, Nissan,” he says. “And we don’t even have diplomas yet.”

Watch the Fast Times at West Philly High trailer above, and tune in for the full film tonight on PBS (check your local listings).

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