Holy Family principal selected to study Finnish education system

Holy Family principal selected to study Finnish education system
Holy Family Grade School principal Fidela Suelto, center, was chosen as one of 12 Los Angeles Archdiocese principals to spend a week studying Finland's educational system. She poses, left to right, with vice principals Katy Monahan Huntley, Ashley Liberda and Teri Nelson. (Tim Berger / Glendale News-Press)

An educational career spanning three continents and several countries will head in a new direction for a Glendale-area administrator.

Holy Family Grade School principal Fidela Suelto was selected as one of 12 elementary and secondary school principals from approximately 250 schools throughout the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles for a special study group heading to Finland next month.


Suelto, who has degrees from American and Filipino universities and has lectured at conferences in Thailand and Greece, jumped at the opportunity to enhance her experience in education.


“We’ve been ranked the best private school in Glendale, the best music school in Glendale and even have the best clergy,” said Suelto, in reference to the latest Glendale News-Press Reader’s Choice awards in December.

“We wanted to challenge ourselves to be even better, and I wanted to be a part of the group heading to Finland to observe what makes their education system so wonderful,” she added.

Suelto leaves March 9 and returns to Glendale on March 16.

In between, she’ll spend a week examining how the small Nordic country of fewer than 6 million people has a student base that consistently scores in the top 10, if not the best, in the world on several educational standards.

The World Economic Forum declared Finland’s education system the “best in the world” in September, while Finnish students finished eighth worldwide in the 2015-16 Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, exams.

The PISA testing measures a student’s abilities in mathematics, science and reading. The Finns scored 522.7 points, not far off from No. 1 Singapore, which scored 551.7. The United States, on the other hand, ranked 31st with 487.7 points.

“It is expected when we come back home that these 12 principals will make a presentation to the principals of the archdiocese to see what we can implement and how we can better instruct our students,” Suelto said. “I’m in charge of curriculum, so it’s very important to me.”

Suelto and all principals were encouraged to apply for the project during an archdiocese gathering this past April.

While Suelto had some doubt about whether she’d be selected, her boss, Rev. Jim Bevacqua, said he wasn’t surprised she was chosen.

“She is a very capable principal,” Bevacqua said. “She’s the best. She has a slew of degrees; she’s very good with people; she’s very knowledgeable; and she’s very receptive to new ideas.”

Bevacqua added, “If there’s an opportunity to learn something and appropriate what they are doing in Finland to enhance our [grade and high school] schools at Holy Family, in the diocese and in [the United States], I think it’s great.”

The Finnish trip comes a little less than eight years after Ryan Halverson, principal of St. Cyril of Jerusalem School in Encino, was inspired by an episode of CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS” television show.

At that time, the host and Washington Post columnist had studied successful educational systems in South Korea and Finland.

“Finland has basically outperformed us on the PISA exam for years, and they’ve done so by doing the opposite of us,” Halverson said. “They have less homework, more breaks between classes, shorter school breaks, almost no standardized testing and a later start.”

Halverson and fellow principals Kris Brough and Rick Billups read literature and studied the Finnish system over the next few years as part of their plan for an eventual trip to Finland. After successfully pitching the idea to the archdiocese in 2017, the trio went about picking a group of like-minded administrators to join them on the educational voyage.

“When we studied Fidela’s application, her answers were right in line with our vision,” Halverson said. “She knew about Finland, and she was realistic in what she felt she could implement. She was an easy choice.”