As Finland turns 100 years old, the Pyhäjoki Upper Secondary School – or Yrttis (“Biz High”) – celebrates its 30th anniversary, having nearly doubled the number of its students over the last few years.

“At Yrttis, we have the Obama spirit: yes we can! We simply do the things that we want done,” says principal Tauno Rajaniemi from Pyhäjoki Upper Secondary School, a learning institute offering entrepreneurship-oriented education, of the attitude encouraged in the students.

Education in entrepreneurship has been part of the school’s curriculum ever since its early days, long before others took note of such an opportunity.

The concept of an “entrepreneurship-oriented upper secondary school” immediately raises a number of questions. What is the purpose of the school – to produce new entrepreneurs, or ambitious top performers for the needs of the business life? Is there a future George Soros or Steve Jobs hanging around at every corner? Well, not really. But, while “produce” is not the right word here, certainly no one would mind a new Steve Jobs popping up every now and then – after all, the school’s main idea is to encourage the students in seeking self-development and being their own boss. This is believed to prove fruitful, no matter which path the student chooses in the future.

“A student is not an object, but a subject. If you need something done, you do it yourself; you don’t ask someone else to do it,” says Rajaniemi, elaborating on the school’s ideology.

To be sure, teachers have not been made obsolete, and students are not expected to pilot themselves from one course to another. Rajaniemi says that the school’s multidisciplinary approach to learning demands a particularly high level of activity from the teachers. He states that it is extremely important to the school that all students find their own path and are able to continue their education further. According to the principal, the school has had success in meeting that objective.

For many years, the benefits of entrepreneurship-oriented education have become tangible in the springtime, when the grades achieved by matriculation examination graduates from Finnish upper secondary schools are compared. In this comparison, Pyhäjoki Upper Secondary School has often been quite high up in the ranking – even among the top 20 schools in Finland, depending on the method of calculation. To curb any overt enthusiasm, Rajaniemi says that there are great differences between classes each year. 

Yrttis has a number of connection points with business life. Every fall, the sophomore students participate in organizing a fair together with companies and communities. This is a great tool for promoting the idea of entrepreneurship and highlighting the importance of networking in today’s business.

The companies operating in the locality, such as Fennovoima, act as the school’s partners. For example, nuclear engineering specialist Minttu Hietamäki has visited the schools and given a lecture on nuclear power technology.

“We have also had a lecture on wind power,” says Rajaniemi, pointing to the diverse energy production industry active in the area.

One essential part of Yrttis is a publication called Pyhäjoen Kuulumiset, edited by the school’s students and distributed not only in Pyhäjoki, but in parts of Raahe as well.

Doors open to the world

The principal says that internationality has risen in importance to the school and its operations.

The school has long had ties to CERN in Switzerland. Among other things, CERN houses the European particle physics research center. According to Rajaniemi, his students have made about a dozen visits to CERN.

One of the drivers of internationalization in Pyhäjoki, nuclear power company Fennovoima has enabled the school to establish a partnership with Sosnovyi Bor Upper Secondary School in Russia. Students from the two schools have visited each other over the years. In addition to student visits, Russia is also visible in other ways; for example, the school offers a multidisciplinary course on Russian culture and literature.

While the students at Pyhäjoki Upper Secondary School can learn Russian in an online course, and this spring saw the first student to take a final examination in the subject, English is the “secondary official language” of the school. It is used for teaching and managing partnerships – for example, in matters concerning student exchanges. Consequently, the teachers of the school have been encouraged to study the language in order to promote multilinguality.

According to Tauno Rajaniemi, the students of Pyhäjoki Yrttis are expected to assume more responsibility of their studies than Finnish students in average.

Furthermore, the increase of the popularity of Spanish has drawn attention in Pyhäjoki. Smiling, Rajaniemi says that one factor behind the high popularity of the language might be the school’s connection with Barcelona, the modern Mecca of soccer. As a delightful aside, Tauno Rajaniemi introduces us to a Spanish teacher from Barcelona, who in fact turns out to be American.

This year, the sophomore students’ traditional trip abroad in late April will be to the United States, and more particularly, to Ohio, where Rajaniemi spent a few years as an exchange student. The program will include visits to universities, culture, and baseball.

“It will be good for us to see how people live without electricity,” says the principal, referring to the upcoming visit to the Amish, who choose to live as people did in the 1700s.

Located in the Rust Belt of the United States, Ohio will offer the visitors a glimpse of how things look after the steel industry moved on to countries with lower production costs.

Tauno Rajaniemi says that cooperation with upper secondary schools in the neighboring municipalities is of great importance to the very existence of Pyhäjoki Upper Secondary School. For example, Raahe Upper Secondary School is a partner that enables the school to offer a wide selection of course. Today, several schools participate in mutual remote teaching networks, and by so doing secure their continuing operation.

Packing the spirit of Yrttis for a move

Founded in 1987, the school has come a long way from a row house apartment to its current spacious facilities that accommodate the demands of modern teaching.

Rajaniemi shows us the atrium, which also houses the school cafeteria. The students are not the only ones to take a break there; teachers often to stop by to have a nice cup of joe, too.

“We do not have any barriers between teachers and students.”

Rajaniemi says that his predecessor as the principal, Pekka Viitanen, was involved in creating the concept of an entrepreneurship-oriented upper secondary school, which had strong support from the municipality. The school serves as an important factor in the development of the municipality, and it is an integral part of the community.

In 1999, the school entered a new era as it was relocated in multipurpose facilities, the use of which is not limited to teaching. One of the things that was packed in the removal boxes was the home-like atmosphere, which Rajaniemi, who is now the only remaining original teacher at the school, wishes to pass on to future generations.

It appears that Rajaniemi has succeeded in this task without too much effort, and why wouldn’t he have? After all, he is a local boy from Pyhäjoki. He is not a Yrttis graduate himself, though; he went to Raahe Upper Secondary School. Later, he studied in Oulu, where he also worked as a university teacher. He spent one part of the period that he refers to as “the lemming years” as a Fulbright scholar in Ohio, where he worked as a high school teacher for one school year.

“Tauno Rajaniemi, living in Rajaniemi Road in the village of Rajaniemi,” – that is how the principal introduces himself today. The circle has closed.

The school building was built for a hundred students; there will soon be many more than that. In six years, the number of students has increased from 60 to over a hundred, and there are now two parallel classes for each grade instead of a single class. The number of young people in Pyhäjoki alone has not been sufficient to effect such growth; students are also coming in from the immediately neighboring municipalities.

“We have room for extension right there,” says Rajaniemi, pointing at the hallway towards the north.