American Community School Abu Dhabi is one of the older international schools in Abu Dhabi and was established in 1972 on land donated by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. The school was founded with the aim of serving the American community, as well as students of other nationalities, within Abu Dhabi.
The story so far...
ACS Abu Dhabi is a K-12, US/IB co-educational school located in Al Bateen, and hosts approximately 1,200 students. Over 60 nationalities are represented in total, but those with North American origins dominate, accounting for over 70% of the student body, made up of 64% American and 7% Canadians, followed by Indians with 2%. Arab origin students are very much in a minority accounting for approximately 4%.
The school identifies itself as "a non-profit, U.S. accredited, college preparatory school. Our American, standards-based curriculum provides excellence in academics, the arts, athletics, and service". Its vision states that "Together we are a compassionate, student-centered community of learners that engages, prepares, and inspires".
Its mission is to provide "a balanced learning program to foster excellence in academics, the arts, and athletics. In partnership with parents, we empower all students to define and shape their futures. Our dynamic and challenging educational program prepares a culturally-diverse student body for learning, service, and global citizenship".
The school was rated Very Good during its last inspection by the Abu Dhabi education regulator, ADEK, a jump of one place from its last inspection.
ACS recruits relatively experienced teachers, but there is a good mix: the minimum requirement is a Bachelor’s degree with two years of teaching experience. The school currently employs approximately 120 teachers in total with a further 35 teaching assistants. This means that there is a very low staff:student ratio of 1:7 in KG and 1:8 through the rest of the school - ensuring plentiful individual attention for each child. Staff come from 20 different countries and appear to very satisfied with their employer - on average they stay at the school for around 5 years. This statistic is supported by a turnover of 11% at the time of the 2017 ADEK inspection, which compares well with the UAE average of 22%. In 2015, the number was only 2%. As a parent this means one thing - stability for your child. If there is a negative, and that's only if you want to find one, a low turnover means that there are fewer new staff to bring a freshness and new ideas.
The school is a member of NESA (Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools), and the school says it provides professional learning and collaboration opportunities for its staff. Not for profit schools in the UAE tend to offer more opportunities for staff to continue to develop professional expertise, and ACS seems to be no exception. This again often motivates staff to remain at schools for a longer period.
What about the curriculum?
The school offers a PK-12 American-style curriculum, but academic students in grades 11 and 12 are offered the opportunity to participate in the IB Diploma Program. Says the school: "Our school mission of cultivating well-rounded and responsible thinkers and leaders with a global perspective is evident in our many-faceted curricular offerings across the school, including a commitment to service learning at all divisions."
The US High School Diploma programme is based on Common Core State Standards [CCCS] and accredited by the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania based Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools [MSA]. The school also offers the range of standardized tests including SAT and will be offering Advance Placement programs from 2018-19.
The curriculum is described by Abu Dhabi's education regulator as "broad and balanced" with optional subjects available in the middle and high school, including art, drama, music, ICT, Spanish and French. There is also the opportunity to "enrich the experience" through extra and co‐curricular activities like sports and subject linked clubs. The school aims to develop independent, articulate thinkers and learners.
There is a strong focus on both Performing Arts and Sports. ACS aims to offer "an outstanding program in the Visual, Dramatic and Performing Arts. The Art Program is an integral aspect of school curriculum and is supported by after school activities. Our students benefit from international exchange with our MESAC counterparts and host visiting artists and authors throughout the year. In addition to our own vibrant program the students take advantage of the international and local programs the city of Abu Dhabi offers".
The Arts are viewed as a central element to the school, and this is felt in the voices of the Elementary school singers right alongside the exciting artworks of IB Visual Art students. In the Elementary school the focus is on Drama, Dance, Music and Visual Arts offered through individual classes in these subject areas. In Middle and High School, the Arts are split even further in their specific disciplines with students being offered an array of Arts courses to choose from.
Sports are also a key area of focus for ACS and students participate regularly in competitions involving other Gulf-based American schools, including EMAC (Eastern Mediterranean Activities Conference) and ADSAC (Abu Dhabi Schools Athletics Conference), and now as founding members of EAC (Emirates Athletic Conference) and MESAC (Middle East South Asia Conference). Sports include Volleyball, Soccer, Basketball, Tennis, Cross Country, Softball, Baseball, Badminton, Track and Field and Swimming.
What about facilities?
Facilities at the school are very good . It is also well resourced, in particular in terms of technology. However, facilities would probably no longer be described as best in class. This is a school where you pay for a record of success, its history, and ultimately its investment in its teachers rather than in the buildings. Having said that, however, the range of facilities is none-the-less impressive for an inner city location.
The Main Elementary building offers KG1 - Grade 3 classrooms, Arabic language classrooms, an Art Room, Dance and Drama Studio, Media center and a Music room. The central, light-filled atrium acts as the entrance and is a pleasant gathering spot for parents at pick-up. Corridors and classrooms are visually vibrant, displaying the academic and artistic work of students. A separate Grade 4 and 5 building provides at basement level, a multi-purpose space, Grade 4 and 5 classrooms, Grade-level gathering spaces and a Roof-top space for play and other activities. Elementary outdoor spaces include two shaded playgrounds: one for KG1 and KG2, the other for Grades 1-5.
Middle School (Grades 6 - 8) classrooms are built around a central outdoor courtyard. The tree-filled courtyard is a social space and the location of frequent academic activities: poetry readings, filming, recitation, etc. Additional facilities include an Art room, Choir Room, Drama Room and Science Laboratory.
The High School Building (Grades 9 - 12) contains most classrooms with a specialist Art room, Cardio and Weight Rooms, Choir room, Courtyard for break and lunch, Digital Photography and Robotics Space, and TV Production Studio. Middle and High School students share a Band Room, Fab Lab, Media Center, and Music Practice Spaces. Whole- school shared facilities include an Auditorium, Black Box Theater, Shaded (heated and chilled) swimming pool, two gymnasiums, two large playing fields, and a number of multi-purpose spaces.
What about academic achievement?
ACS publishes detailed information about its students' performance for the IB Diploma.
WhichSchoolAdvisor.com understands that since the school is selective and streams its students, unsurprisingly, almost all students who take the Diploma, pass it. In 2018, 96% of students who attempted the Diploma achieved it, but only 48 of the 80 student Senior cohort were entered for the full IB Diploma program. Having said that, the full IBDP entrants achieved an average of 34 points (in line with the higher scores in UAE schools), and some 5 points above the global average. 33% of entrants earned 36 points or above, whilst 20% achieved 38 points or more. The highest overall point score by a student was 42 points. To get into an Oxbridge or an Ivy League university requires 40-41 plus points.
Students who do not sit the full IB Diploma program also have the option of sitting one or more IB papers together with ACT, SAT and Advance Placement exams for US college entry. Some 94% of students did, however, sit one or more IB examination. 59% of ACS Seniors in 2018 went on to university in the USA, a further 14% to Canada, 9% to the UK, 13% to universities in Europe and 1% went on to Military Service or took a gap year.
What the inspectors say
Unusually, ACS is a school that is rated more highly for its students' achievements, students' personal and social development and innovation skills and its teaching, than for its curriculum and the "softer skills" associated with Protection, Care and Guidance and for the School's Leadership and Management. We say unusually, as it is often the key performance measures of Student Achievement and Teaching that let schools down. In the case of ACS, the first three measures are all rated Very Good, whilst the Curriculum, together with Protection, Care and Guidance, and Leadership and Management are rated Good.
The inspectors' summary of the school's performance is a positive one "The overall quality of performance is very good. The school offers a wide range of academic, sporting, creative and technological programmes and activities for all students. Students’ creative use of technology and digital media is an example of international best practice. Students benefit from a rich culture of innovation and creativity in a way that prepares them particularly well for their futures. The majority of students are enrolled at the middle and high phases where attainment and progress are at least very good in the majority of lessons. Almost all students gain university places, mostly at international universities."
In particular, the inspectors noted that "Students’ commitment to learning is outstanding because of the stimulating lessons and learning environment".
The inspectors summarised the strengths of ACS as
Unfortunately, in common with many international schools in the UAE, ACS appears to have fallen foul of the implementation of the new Arabic, Social and Islamic Studies curricula introduced by the Ministry of Education. Inspectors noted that "the school has yet to gain appropriate authorisation for important aspects of its curriculum provision as well as to ensure that curriculum provision for Arabic, Islamic education and social studies meets the minimum MoE requirements".
ACS had also not received approval to offer the IBDP - a significant infringement. It would seem that there had also been some infringements to the then newly-implemented approval process whereby schools are now required to apply in advance, justify and obtain approval for school trips. These would likely explain the lower ratings for the Curriculum and for Leadership and Management - something the management team at the school will have no doubt given significant focus in advance of the next ADEK inspection, due in the 2018-19 academic year.
Unsurprisingly, the inspection team found, in terms of key areas for improvement:
However, there is no doubt that if we focus on what ACS does well, then it is serving its students and families at a very high level. Whilst there may be challenges with Islamic and Social Studies and Arabic as both a first and second language (largely rated Acceptable, but with attainment in both Islamic Education and Arabic first language rated Weak in KG and Primary, and with Islamic Education and Social Studies rated Weak in Middle School), the English-language based subjects are rated highly. English and Maths are rated Very Good in KG and Primary, and Outstanding in Middle and High School, as were Art, Music, PE and overall Learning Skills. Science was also found to be Good in KG and Primary and Very Good in Middle and High School.
The inspectors commented that "Children enter KG with expected levels of attainment. By Grade 12,almost all students gain university places, mostly at international universities. Students’ literacy, numeracy and skills in information and communication technology (ICT)are outstanding by high school. Measurement of Academic Progress Tests (MAP) from Grade 2 to Grade 9 show achievement above International and United States schools. Although not part of authorised provision, the school’s International Baccalaureate (IB) results for 2016 are well above world averages in almost all the 29 subject papers".
Inspectors were also clearly impressed by the Personal and Social Development and Innovation skills shown by the students at ACS. They noted that "Students’ personal and social development, social responsibility and their innovation skills are outstanding. Their understanding of Islamic values and awareness of Emirati culture are broadly good. Their attitude to learning is very positive and they are eager to learn, right from KG through to Grade 12. Students are reflective and self-directed, and they demonstrate strong skills for learning independently.The school is a polite and harmonious multi-cultural environment".
The other key performance indicator which was rated highly by the inspection team was that of Teaching and Assessment. This was found to be Very Good in the Middle and High School, and largely Good in the KG and Primary sections. Inspectors found that "Experienced and well-qualified teachers ensure that students are well prepared for external examinations. They plan a variety of activities that allow students to be active and independent. Technology is central to classroom learning at the school with a generous provision of laptops and tablets. Students work collaboratively and support each other’s learning. Students are encouraged to self-assess and peer-assess their coursework. Teachers use open and probing questions to help deepen students’ understanding".
One area of weakness in teaching in the past had been for high achievers, with the delivery of the curriculum not adaptive enough to keep them engaged and challenged. This is not mentioned in the school's latest ADEK report, but, interestingly, the school is now said to have no academically gifted students. Inspectors noted, however, that "the way the curriculum is delivered provides effective scope for them to be stretched. For example, the wide range of curriculum electives and out -of-class activities provides opportunities for students to identify and develop their talents and hobbies". However, it has evidently embraced the provision of support for children with additional learning needs (SEND), with specialist staff and resources available, IEP's provided for each child and parents involved.
These comments serve to underline that the curriculum at ACS is also a strength. Unfortunately, the regulatory infringements in relation to the provision of the MoE mandated Arabic, Islamic and Social Studies programs, and the IB Diploma program, left the inspection team with little option in terms of rating and this key performance area could only achieve a Good. The inspectors noted that "Despite the considerable strengths in many areas of the curriculum, these regulatory breaches remain important weakness in the provision of education at the school".
We have no doubt that the rectification of these infringements will ensure a more generous rating for the next inspection. We say this because, despite the concerns about the rule-breaking and the obvious requirement to improve Arabic, Islamic and Social Studies provision in particular, the inspectors could barely contain their praise for the curriculum, noting that "The curriculum is structured to provide continuity and progression in learning. The KG curriculum provides well for academic, social, creative and physical development. The wide range of electives in middle and high school are a particularly rich enhancement to students’ learning. These electives include subjects such as theatre arts, visual arts, sporting activities, web design, dance, sculpture, architectural design, chamber choir, wind ensemble, art, robotics, TV production, Spanish, French and mythology. Enhancement, enterprise and innovation are *outstanding aspects of the curriculum". * The emphasis is ours.
The Protection, Care, Guidance and Support of students was another key performance measure that was rated Good overall. However, in reality, Care and Support is rated Very Good across the school. In particular, inspectors found that "The school counsellor and the students’ service coordinator, together with the senior leadership team, provide college and career guidance which supports students’ choice of universities.Parents and students speak highly of the guidance and advice given throughout their school careers". Once again, ACS was caught out, arranging overseas trips without necessary approval, and their rating achieved only Good as a result.
The final key performance measure - that of Leadership and Management - was also penalised for the lack of compliance already mentioned. In general, the key ratings were Good, and in terms of relationships with parents and the community, and management, staff, facilities and resources, Very Good. In fact, communications with parents and the community were found to be Outstanding.
There is little doubt that ACS is, indeed, a Very Good school. In fact, so much of what is happening is rated Very Good and with Outstanding features, it should surely be a matter of time before the school moves further up the ratings. But firstly, ACS needs to remember that it does not quite enjoy the freedoms that it might have elsewhere, and it must be seen to be doing everything possible to support local goals and initiatives. We have no doubt that in the two years since the last ADEK inspection, steps will have been taken to ensure that the school meets its legal obligations and can focus on doing what it clear does very well indeed - "fostering excellence in academics, the arts and athletics".
Fees are premium - and could be considered Premium Plus considering this is Abu Dhabi where schools are usually commercially more conservative. They range from AED 45,400 in KG1, AED 68,600 from KG2 to Grade 5, and AED 83,000 in Grades 9 -12. The school also changes a non‐refundable application fee of AED 300, an annual reservation fee of AED 3,000 to secure the place for the following academic year, and a one‐time non-refundable Capital fee of AED 18,700 which may be paid in full or in two annual payments on entry to the school.
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While it used to have a great curriculum, the exorbitant fees do not compensate for the scrappy facilities and diminishing quality of education. Parents' tuition money is being poorly used, a majority of it is invested in technology as opposed to getting better rooms, chairs, lockers, etc.
Also, there is a 1-12 grading system in high school and a 1-4 grading system in middle school that doesn't translate well when it comes to transcripts. Good luck to parents on dealing with that.
Easily the best American school in Abu Dhabi. Unlike GEMS American Academy, which is all style and no substance, this is the real deal. Great solid teachers, academics, extracurricular activities, and facilities mean your kids will get a great education and preparation for the future.