The American International School in Abu Dhabi (AISA) is one of a small group of schools owned or managed by ESOL, a family-run business based in Cairo, with branches in Nicosia, Cyprus, the Lebanon and the UAE. AISA, although a US curriculum school, was also among the first to offer the International Baccalaureate Diploma programme (IBDP) in Abu Dhabi, subsequently adding the Primary Years programme (PYP). AISA is a truly international school with students of 60 different nationalities.
The story so far...
The American International School in Abu Dhabi was established to provide the local and expatriate residents of Abu Dhabi with a high quality American education, based on American standards, as well as an international curriculum via the IB. In its inspection in 2014, the school was rated B4 (Acceptable) by Abu Dhabi's education regulator, which signified an improving satisfactory school. This judgement was supported by the subsequent inspection of AISA in 2015-16, where its rating was raised to Very Good under the new UAE-wide inspection framework. The school retained its Very Good rating (one below the highest Outstanding rating) in the 2017-18 inspection round.
As part of Educational Services Overseas Limited (ESOL), AISA is the group's oldest in the UAE, opening almost 25 years ago, in 1995 with 519 students. By 1998 there were 750 students and in 2006, enrollment jumped to 1100. Today, the school has approximately 1,400 students from 60 nationalities speaking 30 languages from Pre-K to 12th Grade (aged 3 to 19). Just under one in three students (28%) is Emirati, one in six (15%) is from the USA and a further 9% each are from Egypt and 7% from Jordan. Classes are mixed-gender in the Elementary School, before becoming single gender in Middle and High School. There is almost a 50:50 balance between male and female students.
AISA employs some 145 teachers. This provides a teacher:student ratio of just under 1:10; a low ratio that should ensure individual attention for each student as required. There are generally five classes per grade and average class sizes of between 18 and 22 are on the low side. Indeed maximum class sizes of 22 are among the lowest in Abu Dhabi.
Staff turnover, at 22%, is around the UAE average of 20-22%, with the majority of teachers being employed on a two year contract. Any school that regularly replaces one in five staff on an annual basis will inevitably have to ensure that adequate procedures are in place for training and orientation of new staff - a challenge for any organisation at the start of the academic year. AISA recruits only professional educators who are in possession of at least a bachelor's degree with a current teaching certificate, plus at least two years' experience as a certified teacher. AISA is an English medium school and complete fluency in written and spoken English is required. Recruiters from the school attend specialist recruitment fairs in the USA specifically for this purpose.
AISA received its first accreditation in October 1997 from the Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges (MSA), and in January 2010 was accredited by the Council of International Schools (CIS). AISA defines its mission as "Providing an international curriculum in a safe, multicultural environment that inspires globally-minded, critical thinkers to take responsibility for their society". Its vision is defined as "Being global providers of future leaders ready to conquer life's challenges and grasp its opportunities."
What about facilities and resources?
The campus is on a large site in the Educational Zone, approximately 20 kilometers outside the city centre of Abu Dhabi city which accomodates two schools. The KG and Elementary sections serve some 710 students, whilst the Middle and High School sections, serve some 680 students. The school is coeducational in KG and Elementary and gender-segregated in for Middle and High School in line with Abu Dhabi Education and Knowledge Department regulations.
School facilities include a library, art rooms, computer labs, a medium sized swimming pool and six science labs. AISA also has gymnasiums, outdoor basketball courts and an adjoining soccer field. The ADEK inspection report notes that "despite their age, the premises are bright and colourful, and enhanced by informative displays and celebrations of students’ work, including high-quality artwork. Facilities are well maintained and provide attractive learning environments. The school provides a wide range of engaging resources, particularly learning technology, and stimulating materials in KG, all well matched to curriculum needs and effectively used by teachers and students".
In order to ensure that students are prepared for today's interconnected world, AISA is a BYOD school in Secondary, where all students bring a device (Laptop or iPad) to school each day. Elementary students have access to laptop carts and and all students from K-12 have access to the library with over 20,000 books and ebooks.
AISA offers a range of after curricula activities and an impressive range of clubs, operating at elementary, middle and senior levels. It claims to have "one of the strongest high school competitive sports programs in the region" with teams competing in a variety of sports, including Soccer, Basketball, Volleyball, Track and Field, Cross Country, Tennis, Badminton and Swimming. The school is a member of two organised leagues: Junior EAC – A collection of EAC schools providing activities for Grade 4 to 6 students in the UAE - and the OASIS Activities Conference, an international league with schools from all over the MENA region.
The school also emphasises its drama productions at high, middle and elementary levels as well as musical performances. The Visual and Performing Arts department believes art is vital in creating "complete human beings" that are creative, analytical, disciplined, and self-confident individuals. The department offers a diverse set of courses including Ceramics, Drawing and Painting, Art I, IB Art, Computer Assisted Art, Guitar I, Piano I, IB Music, Drama 1 and 2, IB Drama. The team also offers many after school clubs such at high school and middle school theatre production, rock band, choir, and art classes. Courses are designed to meet the needs of all students and each curriculum is developed with the State Standards in mind.
What about the curriculum?
Students in the Elementary School follow the IB PYP (Primary Years) curriculum with content based around the US Common Core standards. AISA offers a range of support for students with additional learning needs. In Elementary School, the learning support specialists assist students in grades K1-5 in reaching their academic goals through individual or small group support in and out of the classroom. A counselor also supports students and addresses behavioural and emotional concerns that affect learning by meeting with students one on one or in a small group setting. The counselor also conducts parent groups and workshops, and meets with parents one on one to provide support and strategies. The English Language Learning Program (ELL) supports students who are new to the language. They attend classes of formal instruction with a qualified ELL Specialist or those students with basic English structures are supported in small groups within the classroom.
The Middle and High school operates three routes for students as they work towards achieving their High School Diploma(s).
In addition, as part of their preparation, AISA students take the MAP® tests (Measures of Academic Progress) which are personalised, adaptive evaluations in reading, language and Maths. They allow the school's teachers to evaluate students’ individual learning needs. The ADEK inspection report from 2015-16 notes that "students from KG2 to Grade 11 take part in Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessments. Attainment levels overall in reading and language are good, with higher than average performance by students in KG, grades 1, 4 and 10. Performance in mathematics is very good overall and outstanding in grades 1, 2, 9 and 10".
The Secondary Learning Support department supports students with mild or moderate learning difficulties. The Learning Support department also accepts some students who are struggling academically as evidenced by MAP and CAT-4 scores and student grades. Students receive differentiated support in several ways: in small groups, divided by gender and grade; individually with one on one sessions during the school day; and suitable assessment accommodations if necessary. Secondary School Counselors provide emotional and academic guidance counseling to all middle and high school students. The counselors work with students to support academic decision-making, provide curriculum information and assess student interest and needs. In addition, they advise students on course selection and offer a number of programmes to support students transition throughout high school to life beyond high school. College and career counseling is offered to the students in 11th and 12th grades.
What about academic achievement?
The school does not publish details of its academic results so it not evident how successful AISA is in terms of producing graduates with acceptable academic grades/qualifications. However, an increasing number of students in Grades 11 and 12 follow the IB - arguably the most challenging and academic curriculum of offer. The 2015-16 ADEK inspection report noted that "the performance of the relatively small cohort of students who take the IB Diploma is in line with worldwide averages overall and well above those levels in English literature, biology and chemistry. There is an improving trend in performance over time in external assessments". The latest report notes that "the very good results in the IB Diploma at the previous inspection have been raised further in English, mathematics and physics".
Whilst WhichSchoolAdvisor.com recognises that academic results are only one element of education, we would like to encourage AISA to publish its IB results, together with the staff's analysis of them. Ultimately, parents and students will measure a school by its results to some extent, and we believe that transparency in this aspect is a key part of a school's responsibility.
The school does provide some information on university destinations in the news on its web site. According to the school AISA "has more students accepted at NYU-AD than any other school in the world". Other destinations for this year's senior students include NYU, New York City, Boston University, Penn State, Purdue, Rutgers, London University (Kings College, Queen Mary College, Royal Holloway College), Manchester University (UK), McGill, University of British Columbia, Carleton, McMaster and the University of Toronto. The school has recently started to build its Alumni Association, noting that since 1995, over 1,500 students have graduated from the school.
What the inspectors say
The last report published by the Abu Dhabi Department of Education and Knowledge (ADEK), previously ADEC, was published in 2018, based on an inspection that took place in March 2018. The school was rated Very Good; one grade away from the highest of the six performance levels of Outstanding. Importantly, AISA has clearly solidified its performance, having been rated Very Good across all six key performance standards.
The inspection report found that the school has made very good progress in addressing the recommendations in the previous inspection report. School leaders have delivered high quality training on assessment for learning and differentiation, and improving practice is evident in lessons. Close monitoring of teaching quality by leaders and the development of collaborative planning has resulted in more varied teaching strategies, including in Arabic and social studies. Good practice in teaching and learning is now shared across all subjects, through an effective lesson study programme which includes peer observation. The school has maintained very high standards in English, mathematics, science and other subjects.
A key factor in AISA's ability to achieve an improvement in rating will revolve around the provision of the core Arabic studies, particularly given the sizeable Emirati student contingent. The latest report found that "achievement in Arabic as a first and second language, and in social studies has improved to good".
The school has also taken steps to improve governance through the addition of a parent representative who has attended a meeting of the governing body although the inspection team noted that stakeholder representation has yet to be broadened beyond this. All the recommendations of the previous inspection report have been implemented or are in the process of implementation. Overall, school leaders’capacity to improve the school is very good.
The report for 2017-18 identified the following strengths at AISA:
In terms of recommendations for improvement, these included:
English-taught subjects (including English, Maths, Science and other subjects such as Art, Music and PE), were all rated Very Good in terms of attainment and progress. Those subjects delivered in Arabic (Social Studies, Islamic Education and Arabic as either a first or second language), previously rated Acceptable, have now improved to Good almost across the board. In fact, Arabic as a first language in the Middle School remains Acceptable, but this is a considerable improvement compared with previous years. Clearly, these subjects will have been an area of focus over the past four years.
In the second key performance indicator of Students' Personal and Social Development and their Innovation Skills, ratings were rated Very Good across all sections of the school. Inspectors noted that students "celebrate their own cultures and show experience and knowledge of cultural diversity worldwide".
The strength of the academic achievement by students at AISA is clearly driven by the expertise of the teaching faculty. Teaching for Effective Learning and Assessment were confirmed to be Very Good. Inspectors commented that the overall quality of teaching ad assessment was Very Good. It is let down only by a few Arabic teachers who rely on closed questioning to evaluate students' knowledge and the planning of a few teachers in the High School which fails to engage a small number of High School Diploma students fully.
Similarly, the inspection team found that the quality of the Curriculum and its adaptation to meet the needs of differing students was also Very Good, noting that "the school’s curriculum is very good. It has a clear rationale aligned to the national vision and to the Common Core Standards (USA), The International Baccalaureate is also offered to students in high phase. It is relevant and promotes innovation. Collaborative planning ensures very good progression and continuity in learning. Outstanding cross-curricular links integrate the development of skills across subjects, providing highly effective opportunities for students to develop their skills of literacy, enquiry and independent learning. Rigorous systems identify SEN and G&T students. SEN students receive very effective care in specialist lessons. Support for SEN students is more effective in lessons in English medium subjects than in Arabic and social studies. G&T students are well challenged by demanding, differentiated tasks in most subjects".
In terms of the Protection, Care, Guidance and Support of students, AISA was again rated Very Good across the board. The inspectors commented very positively that "student-teacher relationships are warm, supportive and empowering. Staff place a high priority on the well-being and personal development of students, who indicate that they are able to contact a trusted member of staff with ease and are given very good guidance and support".
In the final measure of performance, that of Leadership and Management, all five performance measures were rated Very Good. These included the Effectiveness of Leadership, Self-evaluation and Improvement planning, Partnerships with Parents and the Community, Governance, and Management, Staffing, Facilities and Resources.
It is evident from the latest ADEK report that AISA is a school that is performing very well across a wide range of criteria. There are the apparently inevitable issues with the teaching of Arabic subjects, which in a school with a substantial Arabic student population is bound to be a concern, but improvements are clearly being made. Overall it seems that AISA continues to make ongoing progress.
Interestingly, the limited number of responses that we have received to our Parent Survey for AISA are largely positive. 80% of parents would recommend the school (compared with a UAE average of 72%) although 10% definitely would not (compared with an average of 15%). 67% of parents were satisfied with the level of academic performance of the school (compared with a UAE average of 63%). Communication is clearly a strength - 89% of respondents were very satisfied with the level of feedback from AISA. Given that there have been a limited number of responses, we would very much welcome wider participation in the survey by AISA parents - please click here to share your views.
Fees for the school are mid-range for a US curriculum school in Abu Dhabi. For the 2018-19 academic year they are: KG 1: AED 30,800 KG 2: AED 32,200, Grades 1-4: AED 43,400, Grades 5-8: AED 47,600 Grades 9-12:AED 56,000.
Note: ESOL opened two new schools in Dubai in September 2018, one US curriculum - Dunecrest American School - and the other, an IB curriculum school with a strong focus on sustainability - Fairgreen International School.
American International School Abu Dhabi is a Best of school, a ranking determined by parent surveys on the site. It can be found in the following Best of rankings:
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