ADLA in Finland

ADLA in Finland

We are a group of 12 Catholic elementary and high school principals from Los Angeles who have come together to explore the education system of Finland. Our hope is that our experience in Finland will inspire us and arm us with the knowledge to reflect on how we can make positive changes in our own school environments and all the great Catholic schools of Los Angeles. We will be posting and writing about our journey on this format. You can also follow our journey on Instagram (ADLA_in_Finland) and on Twitter (@ADLA_in_Finland)

Our Goal: Inspire & Implement

Our goal is to be inspired by what we see in Finland. Our entire group of principals has committed, through professional development and training, to taking what we learn on our visit and finding ways to apply it in meaningful ways to our Catholic schools in Los Angeles. We hope that this principal study tour will help to bring innovative and outside-the-box thinking to our dynamic and ever-evolving Catholic school system in Los Angeles.

Our Team

Mr. Ryan Halverson, Principal at St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Encino*

Mr. Rick Billups, Principal at St. Bernard High School, Playa Del Rey*

Mr. Kris Brough, Principal at Our Lady of Lourdes, Northridge*

Ms. Erika Avila, Principal at St. Vincent, Los Angeles

Mr. Ryan Bushore, Principal at St. Paschal Baylon, Thousand Oaks

Dr. Carrie Ann Fuller, Principal at All Souls, Alhambra

Ms. Patricia Holmquist, Principal at Our Lady of Refuge, Long Beach

Ms. Nicole Johnson, Principal at St. Aloysius Gonzaga, Los Angeles

Ms. Allison Kargas, Principal at St. Anthony, Long Beach

Dr. Beate Nguyen, Principal at St. Augustine, Culver City

Ms. Raquel Shin, Principal at St. Patrick, North Hollywood

Dr. Fidela Suelto, Principal at Holy Family, Glendale

*Members of the Leadership Team

Our Partners: LearningScoop in Tampere, Finland

Our journey in Finland starts with our partnership with LearningScoop Finland. They are hosting us for our Principal Study Tour. LearningScoop hosts and leads a comprehensive program focused on exposing us to the Finnish education system, school development, good governance and administration, collaboration, student support, and innovation. We will have the opportunity to visit preschools, primary, and secondary schools on our tour, as well as meet with teachers, principals, and policymakers.

Where Will We Be On Our Finnish Journey?

We will learning about Finnish education in the city of Tampere. Tampere is second largest urban area in Finland and is about a two hour drive north of the capital in Helsinki. Tampere is considered the birthplace of Finnish industrialism and is a beloved city my Finnish locals.


Finnish Consul General to Los Angeles, Stefan Lindstrom, leading us in a presentation on Finnish education and culture prior to our March 9th departure.

Most of our Finland Cohort with the Consul General.

A few of our great cohort team members enjoying a lovely dinner hosted by St. Augustine Church in Culver City.



The focus for our first day was an overview of the Finnish education and their root beliefs. We met at the University of Tampere for a lecture in the morning, led by members of the Learning Scoop team, who are experienced educators and teacher trainers. We also had the chance to visit a 1st - 9th grade school in Tampere. The school was separated into three buildings (primary, elementary, and junior high). We were accompanied by our Learning Scoop teachers and led by student ambassadors around each of the school buildings, who all demonstrated strong English language skills.

In Finland, there is a belief that "Less Is More". This theme is a core part of their educational policy and practice and they believe that it leads to better academic results and student well-being.

Equal emphasis on ALL school subjects (1/3 of curriculum is in arts/crafts)

Focus on equity, not competition

Shorter school days, less homework

Almost no standardized testing or high-stakes exams

Less oversight and school inspections (with high teacher autonomy)

Mixture of Modern & Traditional

Classrooms were a mixture of modern design touches and technology integration with more traditional student furniture and layouts included. Today's school had small class sizes (between 20-30 students max)

Classroom Decor

Classrooms are very simply decorated. They are not overly colorful or busy. The Finns believe that an overly decorated room is distracting to the learning environment. Student artwork on display is a common element in the classroom.

Emphasis on Arts/Crafts

We visited several rooms for specialty classes in the arts or crafts. This particular room was a home economics class for the 7th - 9th grade building. Our student guides described to us that they learn to cook, clean, set a table, and even are assigned homework to cook meals for their families. They also get to eat their creations in an small adjoining dining area.



Our discussion today was centered around visionary leadership. Principals need to be the change agents in their schools, not just managers. SInce the world is in a constant state of change, schools will naturally always be a few steps behind what is currently relevant in the world, which means the role of the visionary leader is critical to staying ahead of the curve. Principals need to also drive the value system of the school. Why are we here? In short, our core mission is to promote learning. In order to promote learning, Finland believes that a principal should possess certain competencies:

SELF DEVELOPMENT (professional growth, self management, and well-being)

ENABLE & FACILITATE THE COMMUNITY'S ABILITY TO WORK (provide an environment where professionals can thrive)

NETWORKING (build connections and relationships with school shareholders)

ADMINISTRATIVE FINANCE (organization & development that fulfills school vision & strategies)


Trust is at the base of what makes learning possible in Finland. This trust goes both ways: students and parents trust their teachers, and in turn, students are trusted. So far, we have seen that this leads to a greater sense of independence, growth, and creativity in students in Finland.


Basically, schools are a reflection of their principals. We need to challenge ourselves to be authentic, the truest versions of ourselves. We must also focus our energy on things that promote learning in our students and well-being in everyone we work with. (pictured: Ryan Bushore from St. Paschal)


Students in Finland focus on far more than just basic academics. Finland believes that students need to develop life skills and be exposed to things that will serve them well later in life. Today, we saw students, as young as 5th grade, in woodworking, textiles, home economics, and chemistry.



Wednesday brought the group back to University of Tampere for a morning lecture followed by a visit to a school in Hervanta that served students in early childhood education and care in grades 1-9. The morning presentation focused on governance and administration of schools with a particular focus on participation, open management, digitalization, and finance. The afternoon brought a deeper dive into curriculum and special education. The Finnish curriculum places an emphasis on cross-curricular themes that are experienced via phenomenon, thematic, and project-based learning structures. Special Education is emphasized at all school sites and given particular budgetary support for staff and resources. The curriculum must be accessed via student involvement:

21st Century Skills (Ways of thinking, working, and living in our world)

Collaboration (Teacher to Teacher, Student to Student, Teacher to Student)

Assessment (Self and Peer Assessment large part of grading process)


Trust continues to be a cultural foundation in Finnish education. Student input is valued and included in school protocols, activities, teacher evaluation, collaboration, and assessment. The belief and trust in the students keep them motivated as life-long learners.


All students are valued and included in the Finnish education system. Every school has social workers, counselors, and special education teachers that provide small group and 1:1 supports to students as well as guidance and resources to teachers.


The value and appreciation of nature is another key characteristic of Finnish education. The local geography and resources are honored and studied, including required, daily time outside during school hours and outdoor academic experiences. Our team took a hike through the woods and enjoyed dinner cooked over an open fire next to a frozen lake.



The team was able to visit a high school for the day, Rellu Tampereen Lyseo Lukio. During the visit we learned about the structure for high school acceptances and course completion. Students' GPA from middle school determines the high school they will be accepted to based on their preferred rankings of 5 different choices. Once there, cooperation exists between students and teachers, allowing the teens to choose the courses they want to take, while fulfilling 17 compulsory and 10 elective subjects that can often include up to 5 different languages during their schooling career. Within classrooms, the curriculum is facilitated by teachers and students apply content in real world situations while fulfilling Finland's "transversal competencies". These competencies (listed below) were visible in the lessons and classes we visited during the day. These competencies are reflected in the thematic approach that many teachers take in discussing learning objectives with students and in their classroom activities. Administrators and support staff (counselors, social workers, special education teachers) help students discover the best courses and pathway to attain success. At the end of high school, which can be completed in 2-3 1/2 years depending on student motivation, students take matriculation exams to determine which career academic plan they qualify to complete.

Transversal Competencies**

Thinking and Learning to Learn

Cultural Competence, Interaction, and Self-Expression

Taking Care of Oneself, Managing Daily Activities, Safety


ICT (Information & Communication Technology) Competence

Competence Required for Working Life and Entrepreneurship

Participation, Involvement and Building a Sustainable Future

** schools try to build thematic units around these competences throughout the year (i.e. Fish: dissection in biology, cooking fish in home economics, sustainability of fishing in social sciences, working in the fishing industry as a career, etc.)


During our school visit today, we observed many students working independently or in small groups. There was very little direct instruction and teachers were acting as facilitators of learning rather than leading it. The conversations we heard were complex and often demonstrated an ability to apply knowledge (for example, we spoke with 10th graders who were connecting their understanding of the 2008 global recession to its impact on modern day Finland). This was also a component we have seen present in the secondary and primary levels.


The Finnish education system uses 7 transversal competencies across all subject areas to connect the learning that is going on in the classroom to real-world skills. A great examples of this, which was highly visible to our visiting team, was "taking care of oneself, managing daily activities, and safety".


We visited Rellu Tampereen Lyseo Lukio, an established and well respected upper secondary school (high school) in the heart of Tampere. The level of instruction and content that the students were engaged in was reflective of what you might see at a typical university in the United States. It was clear that the school, from the administration to the teachers and students, had high expectations, and everyone seemed able to meet them. It was extremely impressive.



Finland is focusing much of its efforts on creating new schools (and renovating older schools when possible) to be schools of the future. These schools include functional, flexible, and open learning spaces that are integrating new technologies and 21st century skill classes. Building a school of the future takes dynamic leadership. In order to build a school of the future, a principal must be a visionary leader. They must also have the skills, experience, and education necessary to get things done. This, however, is just the beginning. The principal also needs to stayed motivated and be able to motivate others. They have to acquire the resources necessary (funding, equipment, professional development, etc. ) to implement change and they must have a plan in place that can be easily understood and put into action by all shareholders. This is no easy task, but if we are committed to building schools of the future, we must start the work. Now.

8 Steps for a School Leader to Lead a Change

Define & Adapt Your Vision & Lead

Commit Your Staff

Connect it to the Curriculum

Build Professional Capacity

Embed 21st Century Skills

Support Your Teachers in Class When Needed

Evaluate & Improve

Create & Join Networks


The school we visited today (Vuores School) was built in 2013 and was still had part of the school building under construction as they continue to expand. The school featured large, open spaces with high ceilings, wide hallways, various lounge areas, and specialized learning spaces. Many classroom spaces were flexible spaces that could open our close walls to create smaller or larger spaces. There were also classrooms that had walls that could move and open up to hallways to create a more open space.


This school (Vuores) was designed to be the center of the local community. The school referred to itself as a "house". The school provided additional child and family services like a dentist and daycare center. The school also remains open at night for adult classes, sports programs, and other events.


This school (Vuores) had the largest and most well thought-out outdoor space of any school we have visited. Play structures were large and made up of mostly natural products. The play areas extended deeper into the surrounding forest area, including small huts for storing equipment and leading activities. On the day of our visit, we encountered a group of kindergarten students returning from math and science classes (for about 3 hours) in the forest with their teachers.