Penn team advances to national Public Policy Challenge


Fels Institute of Government

Left to right: “Closing Schools, Opening Opportunities” team members Sarah Besnoff, Evan Litvin, Lea Oxenhandler, and Aaron Tjoa.

For the past three years, the Fels Institute of Government has sponsored the Public Policy Challenge, pitting undergraduate and graduate student-led teams against one another to develop the best overall civic campaign to tackle a specific issue affecting the Philadelphia region.

This year, the Challenge has expanded into a national competition involving students from colleges across the country. The Public Policy Challenge National Invitational commences at the National Constitution Center on Sunday, April 22.

Team “Closing Schools, Opening Opportunities,” the winner of the regional Public Policy Challenge held earlier this month, will represent Penn at the national contest. The team’s members are Sarah Besnoff of Penn Law School and Fels; Aaron Tjoa of Penn Law, and Evan Litvin and Lea Oxenhandler of the School of Design.

At the local competition, the team received a $10,000 prize for its winning proposal, which focuses on transforming nine vacant Philadelphia school properties into “vibrant community hubs to counteract potential blight and the adverse economic effects of school closures.”  

Public Policy

Fels Institute of Government

At the local competition, the team received a $10,000 prize for its winning proposal to transform vacant school properties into “vibrant community hubs."

The Philadelphia School District is shuttering a number of schools in the city. Dozens of parochial schools are also set to close within the year. The “Closing Schools, Opening Opportunities” team has proposed that the city create a School Re-Development program to acquire the buildings and bring neighbors, community leaders, and potential investors together to redevelop each structure, rather than let the buildings sit vacant. The plan calls for each school to house a combination of non-profit and income-generating tenants. 

“We strongly believe that the school district needs to make a change in its policies for dealing with surplus property, and that this change presents a unique opportunity for the city,” Oxenhandler says.

At the national competition, the Penn team will go up against student teams from Carnegie Mellon University, New York University, the University of Chicago, and University of Washington.

“These students are our future civic leaders and their passion and commitment to solving problems through collaboration and innovation shows great promise for our future,” says Fels Executive Director David Thornburgh.

Originally published on April 12, 2012