Located in the popular Khalifa A area, close to the Raha Beach developments and the airport, GEMS American Academy externally at least, is a typical GEMS premium School. A curving front which is covered in glass from floor to roof is deceptive in terms of the size of building that lies behind it.
This is a large school with a capacity for 2,050 students, and with well over 1,900 students in the current 2018-19 academic year, it is close to capacity. Students come from a range of 94 nationalities with the leading countries represented being US, UAE, Canada, Korea and Italy. The staff are a mix of US, Canadian and UK passport holders – a total 179 teaching staff and a total staff complement of 320.
The school offers an unusual mixture of curriculum – in some ways the American in the name is a little misleading! From KG to grade 5 (Elementary School), the school follows the IB PYP curriculum. This mirrors the curriculum taught at GEMS World Academy Abu Dhabi and allows for a smooth transition from this Elementary-only IB school to GAA. However, at GAA, the teaching of Maths, English and Science follows the US Common Core curriculum content, thus ensuring a smooth transition to Middle School. From grade 6, the school adjusts the focus further towards the US Common Core curriculum, but uses the methodology of the IB Middle Years Programme. Finally, in the Senior School, students follow the US High School Diploma and IB Diploma programmes. This hybrid arrangement is an interesting one – considered by staff to be the best of both worlds for such an international school. Accreditation through the International Baccalaureate Organisation for the IB programmes, NEASC for the US curriculum and the Council of International Schools ensures that standards are met across all curricula.
As would be expected with a GEMS Premium school, the building, facilities and resources are impressive. The building is an unusual shape – with a central core from which teaching and office blocks extend out in 3 sections towards the back of the building. To one side is the Sports facility which includes impressive gymnasia and additional weights and cardio rooms spread over the 3 floors of the building. Outside at the rear of the building, are 4 tennis courts, basketball courts, a double size football pitch and a beginners and 25m swimming pools. The rear of the school also incorporates 4 separate playground to cater for the different age groups of the Elementary, Middle and High schools. At the front of the building, the large open entrance leads up to the access for the 500 seater Auditorium which is spread across two floors. The only other Planetarium among the GEMS schools is located here also (GEMS World Academy in Dubai has the other). There is also a very large and popular cafeteria on the ground floor.
On the ground floor at the rear of the building, the KG and Elementary classrooms are located. All are brightly furnished, well-resourced and cheerful. On the first floor, classrooms are split by a central spine from which home/subject rooms are arranged overlooking the front and back exteriors of the building. At the centre are a range of specialist rooms including Music, Art and Drama. There is also an enormous Elementary Library which is open, bright and colourful.
The Middle and High School is located on the Second floor. Here the central rooms include 2 recording studios, 2 MAC Labs, a Black Box theatre and a range of Science Laboratories as well as another extensive Library, numerous classrooms and spacious areas for senior students to gather and study. Laptop carts are found on several corners for use in class and by students for individual study.
The school also has a very strong focus on supporting children with additional learning needs. GAA has a policy of accepting children who are academically one grade below the age appropriate level. In Elementary school, every grade as specialist teachers to assist with Learning Support and English Additional language requirements. This has grown out of the requirement by ADEC that children entering KG may not be refused on grounds of additional support needs. From grade 2, children are assessed and acceptance is not automatic. In the Secondary school, this support continues, facilitated by a School Councillor, and children will have an Individual Education Programme where required. External support for Occupation and Physical Therapy and Speech and Language are coordinated between the school and specialists. The school also has a Gifted and Talented team to work with children at the other end of the academic spectrum.
The students that we saw during our visit – from KG through to the Senior grades – seemed happy, busy and involved in their activities, attentive to staff and respectful of other students and adults around them. The only slight weak spot that we noticed was a number of Senior students who were working on laptops at various locations in the corridor. We could not ascertain whether this was because they did not have access to more usual locations to work, or whether they just preferred the relaxed environment that the corridors seem to provide!
In speaking with parents, the feedback was positive. They praised, in particular, the fact their children were happy, well-behaved and taken care of by the staff. Staff were felt to be approachable and dealt with children with an individualised approach dependent on their needs. They also challenged more able students and timetabled additional time to support students who were at both the higher and lower level of the academic spectrum. There was praise for the school’s staff-run after school activity programme which, we were told, caters to every type of child – be this sporty, artistic, academic or focussed on performing arts etc. – all of these activities are included within the school’s fees.
There is also clearly strong parental involvement within the school including the GAA Parent Association (GAAPA) and Booster Club. The GAAPA parents run the Parent Café, arrange monthly home room parent reps meetings, organise a buddy system for new parents based on nationality and also offer Mother Tongue language classes in Mandarin, Dutch and Korean – these are open to non GAA students also, monthly luncheons, dress down days and many engaging events such as Fall Festival, Winter Festival and the International Food Festival.
There is great focus within the school on ensuring that well-rounded, College prepared students leave the Academy with a sense of personal responsibility, gather all the tools and abilities they will need to thrive in the future, develop social and emotional intelligence and a sense of environmental stewardship. The school wants students “to care, commit, act, respond and engage with the global community”. For its part, the school states that “we inspire, we educate, we lead, we innovate”.
Overall, GAA offer the impression of a busy, dynamic environment, supported by a strong ethos of involvement for all students and families to as great a degree as they desire.
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