Annette John-Hall: Good ideas for Philadelphia from students in Penn competition

Penn students (from left) Evan Litvin, Lea Oxenhandler, Sarah Besnoff, and Aaron Tjoa won the public policy challenge. (Clem Murray / Staff Photographer)

In this city, it's not often you can implement a good idea without getting bogged down in bureaucratic mumbo jumbo or political mishmash.

Let's face it, simple and effective is not something Philadelphia does well, what with its haze of antiquated agencies, undermining union obstacles, and pat-down political patronage.

Too often, Philly is where good ideas go to die.

That's why the idea the University of Pennsylvania had three years ago to have its students participate in an on-campus competition to develop practical public policy plans for the city is so refreshing.

The competition, the Fels Institute of Government Public Policy Challenge, takes teams of undergraduate and graduate students from all disciplines, gives them nine weeks to develop a policy proposal and civic campaign, and then enlists prominent policy-makers to judge their presentations.

Some of the winning entries made so much sense you wonder why our sage policymakers haven't tried them already.

A Spanish-language radio program that provides information for parents of public school children; a bus that doubles as a mobile center so poor residents can apply for public benefits; a home model that would address ambulatory health-care services; a new approach to the bike-share program.

But the first-place idea, which netted the winning team of Sarah Besnoff, Evan Litvin, Lea Oxenhandler, and Aaron Tjoa $5,000 and earned them a spot in the $10,000 national competition at the Constitution Center on April 22, focused on the transformation of buildings that cause an emotional reaction just by their history and struggle: our public schools.


Bold idea

Just bringing up the subject of schools creates all kinds of anxiety, the latest being the news that the district is slated to close nine schools (the School Reform Commission recently removed two from the list).

Rather than getting rid of the schools at bargain-basement prices, as is the district's plan, the students' idea is to take them off the district's hands by turning them over to the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, which would handle them like a portfolio.

After all, says Fels executive director David Thornburgh, "the School District is not a real estate agency. The School District should be in the business of teaching kids."

SRC chair Pedro Ramos, a lawyer who served as one of the competition judges, said the winning team was able to embrace the breadth of its big idea as well as beat back the devil in the details to make it doable.

"The boldness of the idea, the planning, the presentation . . . for students, they had done a lot of homework," said Ramos, a former city manager. "It was one of the big ideas in a town that doesn't react that well to a big idea."


'Vibrant community'

The students' proposal would give neighbors a say in transforming the buildings into "vibrant community hubs" based on their own needs. In the end, the process should speed up sales so empty schools wouldn't languish for years.

"If you let schools go vacant, you're putting a death sentence on the building," said Litvin, a School of Design major. "Pipes burst, copper fixtures get stolen."

Or worse.

Over the summer, fire broke out in the old Thomas Edison High School at Seventh and Lehigh. The school, once known as "The Castle" because of its Gothic architecture and monumental size, had sat vacant since 2002.

Thankfully, unlike the tragedy that killed Firefighter David Sweeney and Lt. Robert P. Neary while they were battling a fire at a vacant East Kensington warehouse Monday, nobody was hurt in the Edison four-alarmer.

And if, as Redevelopment Authority executive director Ed Covington says, the students' idea is worth fleshing out, maybe it can be implemented for other city properties, as well.

"Our proposal is not pie in the sky," team member Lea Oxenhandler says. "Nobody told us this wasn't possible."


Contact Annette John-Hall

at 215-854-4986,, or @Annettejh on Twitter.