WSA Visit Experience - November 2018
Our first visit to ASCS Al Barsha since prior to its opening, took place in order for the WhichSchoolAdvisor.com team to see just how far the school has come since we last saw it in June 2016, just as construction had been completed and the opening of the school was only two months ahead.
On arrival at the school, which is located in the school district of Al Barsha South, backing on to the Al Khail Road, we are greeted by an extremely pleasant and efficient Security Guard who directs us to parking near the entrance at the back of the school building. Our guide, Amira, shows us around the school and answers many of our basic questions.
Now in its third year, there have certainly been some significant developments, not so much in relation to the physical presence of the school, but certainly in terms of students and staffing. With around 440 children aged from 4 years to 13 years in classes from KG1 to G7, there is most certainly life in the school. Although the maximum class size is designed to be 25, in reality, classes are generally approximately 20 students. Children are separated between single-gender boys and girls classes from Grade 4. As would be expected, the majority of students are of Arabic origin, with around 48% Emirati.
One of the main pre-opening concerns that we at Whichschooladvisor.com had in relation to both ASCS and its sister school, the International School of Creative Science at Nad Al Sheba, was how the school would address staffing in particular. The rules around qualifications and experience in Dubai are considerably more demanding than those of Sharjah, where the other four BEAM schools operate. We are pleased to learn that the almost entirely female staff are from the USA, United Kingdom and Australia and are all experienced teachers. In addition to the female classroom teaching staff, male staff members include the Head of Inclusion, a member of the PE team, the Koran teacher, and, perhaps more surprisingly, the Principal. Whilst not yet at a point where female students are pubescent, there will come a point where interaction between male teachers or staff and female students may become an issue - it will be interesting to see how this may be addressed going forward.
As we are shown around the school, with its bright walls and displays, we see younger children in class with their teachers during snack time. Older children, from Grade 4 upward, who are based on the first floor of the building, eat in the school canteen. In addition to the regular classrooms - the ground floor ones are used by KG1 to Grade 3 and all have access to an outside terrace area - there are a number of specialist classrooms which are very much focused on innovation. Not surprisingly, the first of these is the Innovation lab. A large room with an interactive white board on one wall and a kitchen area on the other, this is an extension of the KG kitchens that we saw at the Sharjah schools. In ASCS, though, these rooms have become laboratories where children integrate Maths, Science and cookery to measure food, learn about their calorific and nutritional value, prepare the food and then test it with the Cafeteria manager at the school.
The Why? Room is another initiative much appreciated by the students, where they are invited on a weekly basis to explore a question, discover answers and demonstrate the knowledge they acquire, using IT to research and for their presentation skills to "flip the classroom", so that they show their classmates and teachers what they have learned.
In addition to the Innovation lab and the Why? room, the school also offers ICT (including a Robotics lab and 3D printers) and Science labs, a multi-purpose sports hall with indoor swimming pool, and separate canteens for boys and girls. Timetabling is such that use of shared facilities do not overlap.
A popular monthly whole school challenge is the Apollo 13 project. Aimed at encouraging creativity in finding solutions to complex problems - much as the Apollo 13 crew was required to do - each class receives a box containing basic materials and a challenge. A recent example, we are told, was the delivery of newspaper and tape and the instruction that students should "make a chair" which had to sustain their weight. Children may work individually, in pairs or groups and the aim is very much about focusing on learning - particularly on what went wrong in completing the challenge, and removing physical and mental boundaries.
Following our tour of the facilities, we met with the Head of Inclusion, Mr. Mohammed. He explained the ASCS is fully committed to an inclusive policy and will always consider applications from children whatever their disability or support needs. The only proviso is that the school is able to support the child fully. The Inclusion unit includes a multi-sensory room for children who may need time away from the classroom, as well as individual teaching and learning spaces. ASCS currently supports 12 students with a range of SEND requirements including Autism, Speech Delay, Downs Syndrome, and General Learning Delays. The school requires a qualified external assessment for children seeking support and works with the families to provide or support, if already employed, a Learning Support Assistant where necessary. All LSA's are at least Degree qualified - there are currently 9 such staff members at the school.
The Inclusion team also supports children who are English Language Learners or require Arabic support, operating a Pull Out/Push In strategy depending on the initial requirements and subsequent development of the child's skills.
Our final meeting is with the Principal, Jonathan Maxwell Lecher. Jonathan is about as American as any Principal we have met. A Washingtonian and graduate of John Hopkins University, one of the most prestigious in the US, Jonathan joined ASCS Al Barsha in January 2018. Jonathan had developed his initial experience in education in the UAE whilst working for ADEK in Abu Dhabi. With a background in instructional leadership and transformational change in schools, he also has wide experience of both public and private schools in the US and overseas. He is a strong believer in the need for continuous professional development across the school staff, focusing on both the culture and training for teaching and learning.
Jonathan tells us that although ASCS Al Barsha is now in its third year of operation, it has been a "realistically functioning school" for just one year in his view. Initial challenges with the implementation of the curriculum, staffing and leadership - the self-same concerns that we had raised in 2016 - has meant that significant changes have been addressed in this respect. One of the key ones, from his perspective, was defining what "Creative Science" should mean in the context of learning at the school. The Innovation lab, Apollo 13 project and the Why? room are very much evidence of how Jonathan sees creativity and science working side by side.
Among the changes that Jonathan has implemented, and an initiative very close to his heart, is the introduction of Individual Education Plans (IEP) for every student in the school. Traditionally, students with additional learning needs were provided with an IEP, which enabled them and their teachers to put in place a program of learning to meet their individual needs.
The broader approach at ASCS involves all students being MAP tested three times per year and the outcome of these tests being broken down into specific action plans designed to identify areas of weakness, for which students - working with their teachers - then determine actions and timelines for completion. Essentially, every child has an instructional plan from which to work, from the most able to the child requiring the most support. As part of this approach to learning, textbooks are increasingly being removed from day to day teaching, being available as a resource when needed, but not as the main platform for learning.
We asked Jonathan why he had chosen to join the American School for Creative Science. He told us that he had been impressed by the school, the blank canvas that it presented and the potential that he saw it could offer. He strongly believes that in the developing world, the ability to think creatively, outside the box, to question and to be capable of impromptu learning are fundamental requirements. He wants ASCS students to take ownership of their learning both inside and outside of the school, to be open to learning in any environment. At the same time. ASCS is in a unique position to provide moral guidance and a compass to students whose culture and beliefs are a key element of who they are.
In its third year, we were impressed by both how far the school has come, but perhaps more importantly, how far its leadership has developed. We saw a school full of enthusiastic children, enjoying their classes and the adventurous learning opportunities that are offered, driven by a Principal who wants to be at the forefront of learning in the UAE.
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