Dr. Marta Palacios, principal of Bruce-Monroe Elementary School in Northwest, Washington, D.C always wanted to become a part of the education system in DC. As a young immigrant parent, she didn't like what she saw-the barriers to bilingual education for dual language students and the lack of respect and opportunities for school involvement for parents. Already a teacher in her native El Salvador, she worked for eight years to obtain her undergraduate degree from the University of the District of Columbia, and went on to become a teacher and attained her masters and a doctorate as a fellow at Georgetown University. In 1999, the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) asked her to become the assistant principal at Bruce-Monroe. Two years later, a committee of parents, teachers and community members unanimously chose Palacios as the principal, making her the first Salvadoran doctorate to serve as principal in the District.
"I wanted to make a difference, I wanted to help parents have a voice, to empower them. I wanted programs to be inclusive and treat everyone with respect," recalls Dr. Palacios. Today her strategies for parental involvement and her dual language program at Bruce Monroe is recognized as one of the best in the region and is a model for schools looking to break down cultural differences and build community and connection. "We're creating a community of learners. We all learn together--parents, kids, teachers. This is what motivates me to come to school every day."
Dr. Palacios admires Finland's strength in dual language programs in Finnish/Swedish and Finnish/Russian-Bruce Monroe School belongs to the Embassy Adoption Program and is the Embassy of Finland's school-and looks forward to consulting on the first Finnish/Spanish program launching this fall in Helsinki. "This is an opportunity not only to take all I've learned and share that message in a new arena," says Dr. Palacios, "but to learn about the Finns' nationwide curriculum system."
The Finnish education system offers everybody equal opportunities for education. The school network is regionally extensive, and there are no sex-specific school services. Basic education is completely free of charge, including instruction, school materials and special needs education. Schools also provide warm meals, health care, dental care and commuting.
Basic education encompasses nine years and caters for all those between 7 and 16 years. Schools do not select their students but every student can go to the school of his or her own school district. The vast majority of students attend public schools. Niiden lisäksi Suomessa on muutamia kymmeniä yksityiskouluja.
On all school levels, teachers are highly qualified and committed. Master’s degree is a requirement, and teacher education includes teaching practice. Teachers work independently and enjoy full autonomy in the classroom.
Based on this system, Finnish schools achieve excellent results: the nation's 15-year-olds, at the end of the comprehensive school curriculum, have scored the highest marks in the world when assessed in mathematics, reading or scientific skills by the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
Finnish society strongly focuses on its youngest citizens. Finnish municipalities are obliged to, and always do, provide publicly funded childcare for every child whose parents request it. The parents of a new-born child are entitled to almost one year of paid parental leave.
#5 = Visit to Suomenlinna and other historical sites!
#4 = The organization and efficiency of how things work in Finnish culture and society!
#3 = The many great conversations over coffee and food: delicioso!
#2 = The value of visual arts and performance arts in the schools!
#1 = Students, Staff, Parents and Administration of Käpylä School and the Daycare Centers!
I arrived at the Helsinki airport on Saturday, March 21, 2009. As soon as I finished picking up my luggage I saw a young lady holding my name on a piece of paper; that young lady was Virve Vakiala, the coordinator of the Bilingual Spanish / English Program. We hugged and talked all the way to the Hotel Haven as if we had known each other for a long time. Once in the city, I met up with the science teacher from my school, Lynn Lahti Hommeyer and her friend Mirja Pirinen. We walked the fashionable Esplanadi Street and looked at the fabulous window displays of the Marimekko, Arabia and Iittala shops. We also walked to the outdoor market place. I had to buy a winter hat because of the cold.
Mirja invited us to her home to have a traditional Finnish meal of “moose stew” that was accompanied by the best wine in town.
I slept well.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
This was the day to explore and visit places. I visited the Kiasma Contemporary Art Museum, the National Museum of Finland, the Helsinki Cathedral and the National Library.
Monday, March 23, 2009
Virve met us at the hotel lobby. Lynn and I were off to visit Kapyla Comprehensive School. We took a taxi to the school where Sirpa Kopsa, the principal, and Jukka Tolvanen, the vice-principal, were waiting for us. We met in the principal’s office and were given information on the school. It serves grades 1-9, ages 7 to 16. There are 700 students, 61 teachers, 23 assistant teachers, 2 school secretaries, 3 school buildings, 2 subsidiaries, and 10 classes for challenged students. We ate lunch in the cafeteria with the students; they were friendly and asked us many questions. In the afternoon we toured the school; one third grade class sang a song for us. The theme for the entire school was winter, the students were rehearsing the play, “The Ice Queen” At the end of the day we met the entire staff. We presented information about our school and the Dual Language Program.
We had dinner at the Restaurant Nyyrikki with the chairman of the School Board, the parent group and Principal Sirpa. The conversation flowed and again it was though we all knew each other.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
By now we were well known by the staff at the hotel’s restaurant; they knew our favorite table and our favorite food for breakfast. Two day care center visits were scheduled for today. Kati Takanen, development consultant, picked us up from the hotel; our first visit was the Day Care Center Ruoholahden Lastentalo. Ms. Satu Jarvenkallas, director of the child day care centers for the City of Helsinki and Mr. Seppo Rantanen, head of the day care center invited us in. Coffee was served with delicious sweets. We learned that they provide full time, part time and evening services. We also learned that an education plan is developed together with teachers, parents and children. We saw children in centers involved in dramatic play, building with blocks and playing outside. We had lunch at the day care center and then we traveled by metro to Saana Day Care Center. I was impressed by the fact that to ride in the metro you don’t show your fare card unless a monitor asks you for it; there is a sense of trust.
Ms. Auli Maenpaa, the head of the day care center gave us a warm welcome and proceeded to talk about the center. We toured the center; we saw children having fun, having free play, and learning. One group of students wrote and illustrated a story; the story was presented to us and was written in English and in Finnish. At this center we saw multicultural children, two from Russia and one from Somalia. One student, Vivi, was outside playing and when she saw us leaving, she waved and kept running after us.
We returned to the hotel for a short siesta and then we went to the “Nuevo” Restaurant where the Sangria was the best on the menu (numero uno). We met Mr. Rauno Jarnila, the head of the Helsinki City Education Department, Ms. Eeva Penttila, the head of International Relations, Hilkka Hytonen, City of Helsinki and Sirpa Kopsa, Kapyla principal. Again, the conversation flowed easily. What an evening!
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Today we traveled to the Kapyla Comprehensive School; most of the day we spent in different classrooms engaging in lessons with the students. We participated in a science lesson where the students were working on an experiment, another class was learning English and some of the students showed off practicing their English conversation skills. We visited an arts and craft class where the students were knitting gloves and another group was working with wood, making a lighthouse. The best part of today was the interaction with the students and teachers and reflecting on how similar children are, regardless of where they come from. In the afternoon we visited the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, just a few kilometers from the Market Place. Virve was our tour guide; she did an outstanding job in telling us about this historical place. Years earlier she lived on the island and she was a tour guide there. We had a cup of coffee in one of the restaurants and took pictures of the sea from one of the tallest points on the island. It was an unforgettably beautiful sight! Inolvidable Belleza!
We met Satu, Kati and Auli for dinner at Sasso Restaurant. We enjoyed the wonderful ambience, mood and food of the restaurant. We talked for three hours non-stop! It was a wonderful “girls night out” in Helsinki.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
We rode the tram to the Kapyla Comprehensive School. We visited the special education program; students were receiving individualized services such as speech, physical therapy and free play. I was struck by how the special education students were included in all aspects of the school day. Many teachers wanted us to visit their classrooms. We took part in the lessons; one of the special education classes was learning about “formal introductions in English” and they were very proud of their speaking abilities. The school had a special performance, “The Ice Queen”. Some of the students played the music for the play; the performers were very serious about their parts and the customs were very beautiful. One special education student sat next to me and served as an interpreter. He did ask permission to place his arm around my back, and when the performance was over he said to me, “Why are you so nice?”
Shopping was fun; Ms. Sirpa took me to the shops but I soon realized that the euro was much stronger than the dollar. It was another fun afternoon!
Friday, March 27, 2009
We met with Sirpa, Jukka and Virve in the early morning at the hotel and summarized our experiences in the city. We also gave suggestions about their Dual Language Program. Students from the University of Art and Design interviewed us. We summarized our impressions of the Helsinki City School visit as an emphasis on play, pedagogy and professionalism.
We had time to do our final shopping and sightseeing. We discovered a cozy café in a boat that had the best fish soup in the Market Place.
We later met Mikko and Susanna of Pluto Finland and Hilkka at the fashionable Fazer Café. We gave profuse thanks for an amazing trip and said our goodbyes with the hopes of meeting again in May.
Saturday, March 27, 2009
Eeva Penttila met me at the Hotel Lobby at 6:30 a.m. for the trip to the airport. I was whisked away from my Finnish fairy tale: a land where dreams do come true for children.
Student art work
Principal with moose
Virve and me
Waiting for tram
A boy who speaks Spanish