GEMS American Academy Abu Dhabi is a highly rated (Very Good) US/IB curriculum school located on the outskirts of the city near the airport catering to almost 2,000 students from a wide range of nationalities.
The story so far...
GEMS American Academy Abu Dhabi (GAA), owned by Dubai-based GEMS Education, is the only US curriculum school operated by the Group in Abu Dhabi, and in addition to the US curriculum, offers the IB Diploma program - one of a small number of schools to do so in the emirate. Its sister Elementary school - GEMS World Academy Abu Dhabi - offers the IB PYP program and is a feeder to GAA. GAA is a full through school from KG to Grade 12. The school has grown rapidly, and whilst this impacted the school's rating in 2014, where ADEK inspectors found that "new leadership" at the school was "still getting to grips with a large and complex school", GAA has subsequently bounced back to Very Good in both its 2015-16 and 2017-18 reports.
The 2017-18 report, following inspection in October 2017, provides details of student numbers and staffing. At that time, there were 1,981 students (close to the school's capacity of 2,050) supported by close to 180 teachers and 66 teaching assistants. This is a truly international school with students from 94 different nations. The largest nationality group at the school among students was American (16%), Canadian (6%), Italian and - very reflective of the change of nationality mix in the UAE in recent years - Korean (also 6%). The majority of teachers are US, Canadian or UK passport holders. Most year groups now have five classes, with a class size of less than 20 (18 being the average, although the highest, currently, is 25). A staff:student ratio of 1:11 means that students are provided with a high standard of individual attention. Interestingly, the school has a high students’ mobility rate (22%) and about a third of new students receive support with learning or language development, particularly those whose first language is Arabic.
Staff turnover, however, at 25%, is on the high side for the UAE where the average is between 20-22%. Whether this is specific to GAA or a sign of some dissatisfaction among teachers at GEMS in particular, is not known. Whilst a level of staff turnover is obviously to be expected, particularly at an international school such as GAA, and indeed welcomed to some extent since it ensures that there is new input and innovation, too many leavers can present a challenge in terms of maintaining stability overall.
All teachers at GAA have a minimum of two years teaching experience, however most have many more years of teaching experience according to information provided to WhichSchoolAdvisor.com. Teachers must have a minimum of a Bachelor/Masters Degree in addition to an accredited teaching certificate, and benefit from continual professional development training courses. The school's principal and CEO, Dr. Kathryn Miner, took over from Daniel Keller shortly after the school's 2014 inspection. Ms Miner was previously the Director of Middle Years at the American School in Paris.
GEMS American Academy also has a team of teachers in Elementary and Secondary School dedicated to Special Educational Needs (SEN). The SEN department has some special teaching resources available for students use, but generally the team will try to adapt/modify classroom materials and assessments where possible. SEN is provided at no extra cost to parents.
What about the curriculum?
The school follows the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program for KG and Elementary and offers an enriched American Curriculum program for Grades 6 - 12. In November 2018 the school was inspected and re-accredited by the International Baccalaureate Organization, The Council of International Schools, and New England Association of Schools and Colleges, receiving "favorable reviews" according to the school.
The most recent ADEK inspection report notes that "The quality of the curriculum is outstanding. It is carefully designed to fuse the International Baccalaureate (IB) and American curriculums. Its highly effective implementation prepares students to be 21st century global citizens".
GAA is modeled on the Dubai based school of the same name. It's worth noting that the Dubai school is the only US curriculum school in the emirate to have been ranked Outstanding by the KHDA, its education regulator - so the Abu Dhabi school does have a very good school to learn from. For some, Dubai's American Academy has begun to eclipse the American School of Dubai, almost an institution in the emirate.
GAA has a number of specialist teachers and classes. Whilst PE, Art, IT, Music, Arabic and Library are pare of the core school curriculum the GAA provides additional focus on Physical Education and Health, Arabic Studies, Music, Art and English Language Learners (ELL). Specialist facilities promote the development of students’ skills and talents in expressive and creative arts and ELL instruction is provided, as noted, at no extra cost to students who need assistance.
The school provides an extensive range of extra curricular activities for its students, tailored for specific age ranges. Free After School Activities begin from Grade 1. However, KG1 & KG2 do have many paid activities to choose from. GAA also works with E-sports who provide professional coaching in a number of different sports including Karate, Ballet and Swimming.
GAA also offers international trips for its students who are able to choose one of several trips during their Spring Break. 2018 students are able to choose from Kenya, Cambodia and a ski trip to Switzerland. These trips are offered from Grade 7 upwards. Spring Break trips in 2016 were to Ghana, London, Switzerland and Russia. In 2015, the school went to Nepal, Kenya, Romania, and a Switzerland Ski Trip.
What about academic achievement?
GAA says it is academically focused, however GEMS Education is pretty weak providing information to substantiate this (GEMS currently obscures individual school performance by bundling results). However, a number of the high-performing GEMS schools, including GEMS Dubai American Academy, GEMS Jumeirah College and GEMS Wellington International School do share their results with WhichSchoolAdvisor.com and we are pleased to say that GAA is among them.
In the 2017-18 Senior cohort, 51 of the 93 students took the full IB Diploma and achieved an average points score of 30.5 (above the global average of 29.78), whilst a further 30 students took at least one IB subject as part of their IB courses/High School Diploma program. The pass rate for those students who sat the IBDP was 80%, and the highest individual score was 43 of 45 points. This was GAA’s fourth graduating class and third IB Diploma cohort. Since the school is still relatively new, entry to the IB Diploma Program is non-selective.
GAA also provided their SAT scores for US College entry. The average SAT scores of graduating seniors were consistently above US national averages in critical reading and Math with a mean score of 1275 compare with a US National average of 1060.
There were 93 students total: 80 enrolled in university, 6 elected for gap year, and 7 joined the military for their respective home countries. University destinations included the US, UK and Canada as well as UAE-based universities.
What about facilities?
GAA upgraded its facilities in its move in October 2011 to new premises in Khalifa City A. Its new buildings now include a planetarium (which you have to admit has a bit of a wow factor about it), a 600 seat auditorium, a six courts sports hall, two swimming pools, four full size tennis/basketball courts and a full sized rugby pitch. It's worth noting however that its not the size or shininess of your facilities, but how you use them, and one comment we received from a parent is that these can be underused. The school also has a state of the art recording studio with a green screen room, and six fully equipped science laboratories.For a virtual tour of the school go here.
Read our Experience visit here.
The location, while clearly an advantage for those parents living in Khalifa A, is not so much so for those closer to the city itself. There has been much grumbling about the location, although not the facilities. Time from Abu Dhabi is very variable - from 25 to 45 minutes depending upon the traffic, but an increasing tendency for families to settle in the large new residential areas "off-island" is no doubt ensuring that parents are able to minimize the travel hassles.
What the inspectors say
The school's 2015-16 report confirmed what the school's parents have been telling us for some time - that students receive a very good education and there are some areas of outstanding provision. "Senior leaders, almost all of whom have been appointed since the last inspection, and staff present a common vision and show commitment and energy in their drive for continuous improvement. Teachers and administrators come together to ensure students experience a rich and innovative curriculum."
The 2017-18 report reaffirms much of the positive comments from the previous report. Across the six key performance standards rated by ADEK's inspection team, three were found to be Very Good and three - the curriculum, the protection, care, guidance and support of students, and leadership and management - were rated Outstanding.
Strengths of the school were found to be:
In terms of Student Achievement, GAA performs remarkably well. Every measure for Arabic based subjects is rated at least Good, with the exception of Arabic-first language provision across the school which is rated Acceptable, although KG students are rated Good.
Aside from KG Maths and Science (rated Good), English-language based subjects are otherwise rated Very Good (again for Maths and Science in Elementary) or Outstanding - across Middle and High School in all subjects. Learning skills were found to be Very Good in KG and Outstanding across the rest of the school. Clearly, the Arabic rating for first language speakers is the main reason why this key performance standard was not rated Outstanding - something that will most certainly be a focus for the school management.
Students' personal and social development and their innovation skills were rated Very Good in general and Outstanding in the Senior School. Inspectors commented that "Students’ personal and social development, and their innovation skills are very good. Attendance is very good at 96%. Students have very responsible attitudes to learning, Students’ are developing initiative and self-reliance".
Teaching and Assessment were also rated Very Good by the inspection team. They found that whilst KG again lagged a little behind with a rating of Good, the remainder of the school was found to be Very Good for both measures in Elementary, whilst Very Good for teaching and Outstanding for assessment for both Middle and High School. The inspection team found that "Teachers ensure that students consistently understand what they are expected to learn. They guide students to demonstrate their own achievement and evaluate the quality of their own work".
The curriculum is clearly an absolute strength of the school. It was deemed to be Very Good in KG and Outstanding across the remainder of the school. Inspectors commented that "The quality of the curriculum is outstanding overall. The curriculum provides students with knowledge, skills and qualifications that prepare them for the global workplace. This is achieved by blending carefully the American and International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculums. At KG and primary, the curriculum purposefully develops the learning strategies of inquiry, innovation and creativity. Students entering the middle phase are confident risk takers, and pioneering thinkers. The curriculum enables students to take progressively more responsibility for their own learning, and make choices about the depth and direction of their studies by grade 12". This is high praise indeed - particularly since ADEK has, in the past, shown some doubt about IB curriculum.
The protection, care,guidance and support of students is rated Outstanding across the board. Again, inspectors noted that "Respectful relationships characterise the school at all levels and behaviour is exemplary. The pervasive ‘Culture of Kindness’ ensures that bullying is prevented. Timekeeping is rarely an issue; many students arrive early at lessons to engage in discussion with the teacher". In addition, the school provides an Outstanding level of support to students with additional learning needs. "The school is proud to be fully inclusive. Students with a range of needs and those with talents are identified through comprehensive diagnostic testing. Highly-skilled support teams plan personalised support packages that help students to engage fully in classroom learning and make outstanding progress".
Again, the final key performance standard - that of leadership and management - was rated Outstanding. The inspection team found that "The quality of leadership and management is outstanding. The school’s ambitious vision inspires and drives its innovative approaches to education. The Principal and senior leadership team demonstrate considerable educational expertise and outstanding leadership skills". GAA is also highly successful at engaging with parents and involving them in their children's education - a vital element for any student to succeed.
In terms of areas of improvement, these are limited but specific:
If GAA can continue to address these two areas of concern, we can not see how the school can be held back from achieving the Outstanding rating that its sister school in Dubai already holds. This would make it the first and only US/IB curriculum in Abu Dhabi to achieve the highest rating.
The school is fundamentally a very well liked US curriculum school, with a strong sense of community, and a reputation among expatriates in Abu Dhabi, especially for parents seeking an American education, as a warm, caring and high quality school. GAA rates, as one of its USPs, its "culture of kindness". It's a trait noted in the schools inspection reports (2014, 2016 and 2018).
Fees at the school currently range from AED 51,100 for KG1 to KG2, and then AED 71,200 for Grades 1 through to 12. This is on par with premium/premium plus schools in the capital - and significantly cheaper that the Dubai school of the same name. Admissions is said to be selective.
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This school dropped from A2 to B5 in 1 year...I think that says it all, no?
For me, the issue isn't that the school's ranking has dropped, but rather, how much it dropped. We see every year, schools will up or down a ranking slot. But to drop 3 spaces in one year? That shows there was a miscalculation by the administration of the school (and possibly by GEMS as well).
I do hope they get it together; the UAE needs more good schools that don't just offer a US curriculum, but also are more orientated towards a Western culture socially (not just Western academics). This way, parents wanting to put their kids in an American school have more options.
It says the school has grown, and there is a significant number of new staff members. GEMs will no doubt resolve the issues, but there is always a period of normalisation after such growth.
I don't know, to me it says the school seems to be run more like a corporation than a school. Good management can and should have factored in how such rapid expansion should affect the students (and if not, that SHOULD be their first priority).
I'm not saying this is a bad school. I do hear wonderful things about the faculty and facilities. And I understand that the demand for schools is increasing, and some schools are expanding to meet the demand. I am just saying, the school (and GEMS in general) should maybe realize "slow and steady wins the race", even if it is a cliche.
Personally I would agree with that Ahmed.
I have four children at GEMS AA. We are pleased with the education they received last year as well as the rigor! Yes, we will miss the staff and administrators that we respected (danx2). However, as an international educator, I know that teachers fulfill contracts and need to decide for their families the next best move. We are encouraged by meeting the new administrators and look forward to another academic year at GEMS AA....
I have had my children at GAA for three years, and have observed the quality decrease each year. This year, my son in middle school has had his schedule changed at least five times, has had teachers that barely speak English, and has had teachers send home requests for students to bring supplies from home. My child's teacher in the elementary school reports that she is lacking essential materials for her class. The root problem at GEMS is that the corporation controls the local budget, and has not allocated sufficient funds for materials and qualified teachers.
My opinion: Move your kids to ACS-AD. It is a much better school.
So why don't you move your kids? Why jeopardize your children's quality of education? Why nothing has been done till tody?
GEMS is only concerned with image. Necessary services are subcontracted. GEMS profits from these services, but takes no responsibility for the poor service provided by these monopolies (uniforms, school lunches, after school activities). The community is good in spite of the corporation, not because of it. Don't be fooled by the beautiful building. We have loved the teachers but the good ones leave as quickly as possible. The poor quality, expensive, restrictive uniforms, change every year. Despite charging the highest tuition of any school in the area you will be continually asked for money for field trips, fundraisers for the class activities etc. High achieving children are asked to complete meaningless busy work so that they don't get too far ahead of their peers.
"High achieving children are asked to complete meaningless busy work so that they don’t get too far ahead of their peers."
What do you mean?
I came to know there are different levels in many of the subjects!
Why do good faculty leave Gems?