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 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 programme - 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 programme 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.
GAA's Vision is "We Inspire. We Challenge. We Innovate. We Care." Its Mission states that "GEMS American Academy is a diverse and caring international learning community offering a rigorous, relevant and holistic education. We develop global citizens who have the confidence and conviction to pursue their dreams and impact the world."
At the current time, 2,052 students (at the school's capacity of 2,050) attend the school and are supported by close to 180 teachers and 66 teaching assistants. This is a truly international school with students from 84 different nations. The largest nationality group at the school among students is UAE Nationals, American, Korean and Canadian; very reflective of the change of nationality mix in the UAE in recent years. The majority of teachers are US, Canadian or UK passport holders. Teacher turnover, at 15% in the last academic year, is well below the average 20-22% in international schools in the UAE, and considerably better than the 25% in 2017-18.
The number of classes per grade varies significantly as students move through the school. Whilst KG1 has 8 classes and KG2 has 9, Grades 1 to 3 have 7 classes, Grades 4 to 11 have 5 classes (with the exception of Grade 5, which has 6) and Grade 12 has 4. Class sizes have grown considerably over the past two to three years, with an average of 24 students from Grades 2 to 12 and a maximum size of 26. KG to Grade 1 classes are supported by a teacher and teaching assistant giving a ratio of 2:25. A teacher:student ratio of 1:11 means that students are provided with a high standard of individual attention.
The school's principal and CEO, Dr. Kathryn Miner, previously the Director of Middle Years at the American School in Paris, has been with GAA since 2014. In June 2020, GEMS Education announced that Dr. Miner would be leaving the school at the end of the 2019-20 academic year to be replaced by Robert Rinaldo.
Mr. Rinaldo boasts more than 20 years’ school leadership experience and well over three decades in education. He spent seven years working as General Director of Lincoln School in San Jose, Costa Rica, where he unified the school community by leading a regeneration of student participation in academic, athletic, artistic and service learning programmes. Prior to that, Rinaldo held numerous leadership positions in schools across Central America, including Head of School at International School of Tegucigalpa and Middle School Principal at The American School of Tegucigalpa in Honduras.
Mr. Rinaldo holds a BA in Secondary Social Studies Education and an MA in History from The State University of New York, Cortland, as well as an Education Specialist degree in Educational Leadership from Nova Southeastern University, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. In 2018, he was also awarded the Klingenstein Heads of School Fellowship from Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York. In addition to his extensive education sector experience, Robert acted as International Development Consultant at the UN Industrial Development Organization in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and Learning Coordinator at Oneida County BOCES in New Hartford, New York. For three years, he also volunteered with the US Peace Corps in Siguatepeque, Honduras.
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.
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. The school also supports students who are Gifted and Talented and for whom English is not their first language through an English Language Learner programme,
What about the curriculum?
The school follows the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme for KG and Elementary and offers an enriched American Curriculum for Grades 6 - 12 with the option of the IB Diploma Programme (in addition to a US High School Diploma) in Grades 11 and 12. GAA says that its programme incorporates the best curricula globally, including the International Baccalaureate (IB) Scope and Sequence, Project AERO (American Education Reaches Out/Common Core), National Arts Standards, and the UAE Ministry of Education.
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. It is also accredited with the Middle East International Baccalaureate Association (MEIBA)
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, GAA provides additional focus on Physical Education and Health, Arabic Studies, Music, Art and English Language Learners (ELL). A choice of French or Spanish are offered in the Secondary section of the school. 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. Activities include both individual pursuits and team building activities for students that are developmentally appropriate. Students may choose from a wide variety of activities. Internal ASAs are covered by the tuition fees.
External activities by outside providers are paid. GAAworks with E-sports who provide professional coaching in a number of different sports including Karate, Ballet and Swimming. GEMS American Academy - Abu Dhabi provides a rich extra-curricular program that supports student’s total development, providing opportunities for students to develop talents and explore new interests.
GAA offers international trips for its students who are able to choose one of several trips during their Spring Break. 2018 students were 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 fifth graduating class and fourth IB Diploma cohort. Since the school is still relatively new, entry to the IB Diploma Program is non-selective.
In 2019, 101 students graduated from GAA with 47% taking the full IB Diploma programme. 81% achieved the full Diploma and the highest individual score was 39 points of a possible 45. This is a considerable achievement.
Those students who passed the Diploma achieved an average point score of 31 - well above the global average of 29.62, but below the UAE average of 32.26. 90% of all senior students at GAA took at least one IB subject. However, it should be noted that unlike many schools offering the recognised highly academic IB Diploma programme, GAA is non-selective. Those students who did not take the full IB Diploma instead took the "slimmed down", IB Certificate programme.
GAA also provided their 2018 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 compared with a US National average of 1060. In 2019, the GAA Mean score was 1,111 compared with a US National Average of 1,092.
In 2017-2018 PISA test GAA students outperformed UAE students by more than 100 points.
85% of Class of 2019 went directly to university. 15% of graduates are fulfilling military service or taking a gap year. University destinations included 23 student to the USA, 12 to Canada, 11 to the UK, 15 to Europe, 18 within the Middle East, 7 to Asia and Australia with the remaining 15 student completing their military service of taking a gap year.
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, two libraries, a six courts sports hall, two swimming pools, four full size tennis/basketball courts and a full sized football 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, a black box theatre 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 reaffirmed 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.
If you would like to read the full ADEK inspection report - and we strongly advise that you do so in order to understand the reasons by the ratings, you will find it here.
Unfortunately, ADEK does not publish details of parental, teacher or student feedback as part of its reporting process. The WhichSchoolAdvisor.com Parent Survey has received an acceptable number of responses though we would always encourage more participants. Results are decidedly mixed. 64% have said that they would recommend GAA to other parents, whilst a definitive 20% have said they would not. Issues appear to include fee levels - a common complaint among UAE parents - with only 24% agreeing that they represent value for money and almost one third saying that they do not.
Just over half of parents are satisfied with the quality of education their children are receiving, but, again, 16% of dissatisfied parents is a figure well above the UAE average of 10%. Parents are generally satisfied with communication and discipline at GAA. Despite their concerns, parents believe that their children are receiving an education that is at least of the same or higher quality than in their home country.
If you are a parent, teacher or student and GEMS American Academy, please do share your experience with other potential members of your community by completing our survey.
Despite the somewhat mixed feedback from parents to our survey, we believe that
GEMS American Academy is fundamentally a 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).
What about the Fees?
Fees at the school currently range from AED 52,870 for KG1 to KG2, and then AED 73,670 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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