Before talking specifically about the school, I need to provide you with a small amount of background regarding special education services in Finland. Just like in the United States, an important idea in education is inclusion; many students with special needs are educated in their neighborhood schools. In cases where the need is greater than what the school can provide, students are referred to regional support service centers which can offer services in order to keep the student in their neighborhood school. In cases where students’ needs exceed the support available at the regional center, the school municipality, together with parents, can apply for support through Valteri (either in the form of consultative services or for educational placement.) Funding for placement at a Valteri Centre is at no cost to the parent or local school. Yes, you read that correctly: funding to educate students with a higher level of need comes from the National Board of Education. The municipality is responsible for paying only the cost of transportation for the student.
Valteri Koulu Onerva, where I visited yesterday, is a part of the Valteri Centre for Learning and Consulting. Six centres in the Valteri system are spread through-out Finland and offer both on-site specialized instruction for students (including a residential component for some students), special education consultation services for local schools, assessment and rehabilitation services, multi-disciplinary team training for educational professionals and production of materials.
Each branch of the Valteri Centre offers unique specializations, ranging from working with students with autism, language and communication disorders, deafness and hard of hearing, visual impairments, mobility and motor coordination deficits, multiple handicaps, and neurological conditions and chronic illnesses. At the Valteri Koulu Onerva campus, the area of specialization includes specific language impairment, hearing, and visual impairments.
On Campus Services and Environment
Currently, 137 students are enrolled at the school, with the majority being diagnosed with specific language impairment (87), followed by deafness-hard of hearing (30), and visual impairment (20). All students have an IEP (which is known in Finland as HOJKS) that defines their individualized needs. The majority of students at the school study the national curriculum with necessary accommodations. For example, students who are deaf or hard of hearing receive instruction and assessment in Finnish Sign Language. When necessary, students can be instructed and assessed based on an individualized syllabus per subject or receive instruction/assessment in 5 main areas: motor skills, communication, social skills, activities of daily living, and cognitive skills. Students on campus who live over a certain distance from the school live on campus Monday – Friday and travel home for the weekends.
While any student accepted to the Onerva School is guaranteed a spot through-out their entire basic compulsory education years, the ultimate goal of the programing is to prepare students for reintegration into their neighborhood school. While not possible in all cases, staff at the Onerva school assist students with the transition back into their neighborhood schools. Deaf or hard of hearing students that transition back to their neighborhood schools or continue on to university level studies will then receive appropriate accommodations, such as a sign language interpreter. The cost of the interpreter would then be covered by the municipality or in the case of students transitioning to university level studies, by KELA, the social welfare service in Finland.
The physical premises of the building are reflective of the philosophy of education. There is an immediate sense of openness, which lends itself to the interdisciplinary approach taken by the staff at Onerva. Additionally, acoustics, lighting, and accessibility were taken into consideration when designing the building. While I’ve mentioned already that regular education schools do not include related service professionals (speech, OT, PT), that is not the case here. The staff at the school includes special class teachers, subject teachers, speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, vision therapists, orientation and mobility, guidance counselors, school psychologists, social workers, nursing staff, and residential staff members.
Each wing of the building is organized in a pod type system. Pre-primary classrooms are limited to 6 students while grades 1-9 are limited to 8 students. There are classroom spaces, referred to as “fountains” arranged around the perimeter of each wing. In the center of the wings open spaces referred to as “parks” and individual working areas known as “dens.” (I mean this quite literally: The dens are small enclosed spaces that can be used for individualized instruction, studying, brief teacher meetings/phone calls). There is also a shared kitchen space and seating through-out that encourages interaction between all students and staff. The style of design is referred to as Oivallus (Finnish for ‘insight’) and is based on Julianna Nevari’s learning space concept
*About the photos below: The building is brand new, and in some areas not all furnishings have been installed. Additionally, I only took pictures that did not include students, so this is not a full representation of the spaces in the building.*
Consultative services are provided both in home schools and on campus. In situations where a school municipality has questions about the specific needs of a student, Consulting Teachers from Valteri make arrangements to visit the neighborhood school. After a day of observation, the consultation teacher writes a report and conducts several meetings with the local educational team (including parents) to offer suggestions and supports that allow the student to remain in their neighborhood school.
Students can also come to campus for consultative services. In some cases, thourogh assessments are completed in a one day session in order to provide information for neighborhood schools. In other situations, certain student groups come to campus for a pre-determined amount of time. For example, students with visual impairments who receive their primary education at their neighborhood schools spend one week at the Onerva campus to review their progress and goals. If adjustments need to be made regarding a specific area, such as use of assistive technology or braille instruction, the staff at Onerva can work with schools to make the necessary adjustments.
Continuing Education and Training:
One of the main focal points of the Valteri Centers is to support the implementation of inclusive education; offering trainings is an important means to this aim. A regular series of trainings is offered at the school, and often they are designed for interdisciplinary teams. Trainings are provided for mixed groups of teachers, special educators, school psychologists, speech-language therapists and even medical professionals. Much of this training is free, being financed by the Finnish National Board of Education. Specific school municipalities can also request training specific to a need within their school. Consulting teachers develop programming and travel to the school to provide training to the educational team. It is interesting to note, however that teachers in Finland have no "requirement" to pursue continuing education credits, however the trainings are still well attended.
Another interesting aspect of professional development provided by Valteri Centres is referred to as Workplace Counseling. As described at the Valteri Koulu Onerva website:
“Workplace counselling gives you an opportunity to analyse, evaluate and develop your own work. It is implemented by a person who has completed workplace counselor training. Workplace counselling focuses on issues related to work, the workplace, as well as one’s role in it, and on individual situations with clients and pupils. The essential purpose of workplace counselling is to make clients reflect on their relationship with their work and experiences. The counselor and potential other participants also help clients see themselves and their work more precisely and clearly.”
The idea of workplace counselling is widespread in Finland. My Fulbright project indirectly deals with this practice, so I’ll be learning more about it during the time that I’m here. I find the concept very interesting and believe that the idea of focused self-reflection plays a large role in improving job performance and satisfaction.
So much of what I saw yesterday was truly inspiring. The philosophy at Valteri Koulu Onerva, the access to multidisciplinary teaming, the physical space, the support of the staff (both on site and for surrounding educators), and the access to funding were all incredible aspects of what I observed. While I was struck by the many contrasts to our system at home, I was also struck by the similarities, which I'll write more about soon.
Thank you to the staff at Valtteri Koulu Onerva for welcoming us warmly and sharing your time, thoughts and ideas with us and allowing us to watch you in action.
This was the first of many school visits for me in Finland. Do you have any specific areas that you would like more information? Please ask in the comments below and I will do my best to investigate and answer your questions during upcoming school visits.