GEMS Dubai American Academy, part of the GEMS school group, is a US curriculum school offering a US High School Diploma and, increasingly, the option of the International Baccalaureate Diploma programme. It is the only US curriculum school to have achieved the highest inspection rating of Outstanding from the Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau, now for eight years in a row.
The Story so Far...
Founded in 1997, GEMS Dubai American Academy (DAA) is without question the most successful for-profit US curriculum school in Dubai. There is something rather ironic in its current location, now entering its third academic year, next door to its nearest competitor, the not-for-profit (and significantly older) The American School of Dubai (ASD). In fact, GEMS Dubai American Academy is the first and most successful US Curriculum school within the GEMS network, and the only other US curriculum school which can compare to DAA in quality and size is ASD. However, DAA is the only US curriculum school to have achieved the highest KHDA inspection rating of Outstanding, a rating which it has retained for 8 years.
Following DAA's relocation to the campus of the short-lived, but highly anticipated GEMS Nations Academy, student numbers have grown to around 2,730 in a campus with a capacity of 2,750. The school has grown by a further 400 students since its relocation - driven in large part, according to the school, by families who have relocated to Dubai in support of work on Expo 2020. Whilst ASD remains largely North American in terms of its student and faculty nationality, DAA has always had, and retains, a much broader international base of student nationalities. There are, in total, an impressive 100+ nationalities represented within the student body, with the biggest numbers coming from the US, Canada, India, S. Korea and Egypt. There is a 50:50 male to female ratio.
The school is co-educational from KG1 to Grade 12 with much of the recent growth having taken place in the High School section which has grown from 600 students (similar to the Middle School) to 900 students. There are between 7 and 9 classes per grade with class sizes of 22 in the KG section and a maximum of 25 in Grades 1 to 12.
The school building is organised across four floors, with KG to Grade 2 classes located on the ground floor, followed by grades 3-5 on the first floor, grades 6-8 on the floor above, and grades 9-12 on the top floor of the building. High School students have their own separate lounge and study area - designed by the students - at the top of the school. Expansive technology, science and performing arts and other specialist and sports facilities are also provided - more details can be found here.
Superintendent, Tammy Murphy, now entering her third year as Principal of the school, was faced in her first months not only with the challenge of relocating the school from one site to the other, but to merging the faculty of both DAA and GEMS Nations Academy and hosting the DSIB inspection team within 5 months of the relocation. To her credit, the 2017-18 KHDA inspection visit, which took place in February 2018 and the re-confirmed Outstanding rating, suggest that these challenges were well met. Now the school has had more time to settle into its new campus, the Outstanding rating has again been retained.
With the growth of the school, and following Tammy's arrival, leadership of DAA has been devolved with a Deputy Superintendent and Principals leading the school at each level - KG, Elementary, Middle and High School sections. Four school counsellors in the High School work specifically with students to support their career and college interests and applications.
The school employs 232 teachers (a significant increase of 40 since 2015-16) and 62 teaching assistants, with staff employed at recruitment fairs in the UK, US and Thailand. The majority of teachers come from the US. The student:teacher ratio is 13:1 on average across grades. All teachers are degree educated, and a majority hold Masters degrees or above.
Staff turnover at the end of 2017, at 36%, was significantly above previous levels - and above the norm in Dubai of between 20-22% - presumably as a result of the merger. Turnover in 2018 has reduced to 19% - back to the averages of previous years such as 2015-16, when the turnover was 25%, and in the year prior, 20%. The upsurge in 2017 was almost certainly a symptom of the merger of the two schools and new leadership rather than the transient nature of Dubai, where teachers are generally employed on two year contracts, and certainly appears to have stabilised.
What about the curriculum?
DAA is fully accredited by the Council of International Schools and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, and has been since 2004. In addition to the US High School Diploma, DAA offers the IB Diploma Program for students and parents wanting a broader, more internationally focused qualification.
With the disappearance of GEMS Nations Academy, and its very strong and specific focus on technology, WhichSchoolAdvisor.com was keen to learn how much of the Nations' vision had been adopted by DAA and integrated into its curriculum. The school follows the US Common Core curriculum leading to a NEASC accredited High School Diploma, whilst offering the IB Diploma program in Grades 11 and 12. The school will also add Advanced Placement and IB courses programs to its curriculum to respond to the requirements of students seeking US college placement on the one hand, or a more vocational pathway. According to the school, 67% of all graduates in 2018 achieved the IBDP. For further details about academic results, skip to here.
The Superintendent's introduction speaks clearly to the curriculum direction:
"At the core of our future-fluent curriculum is creative design, cutting-edge robotics and digital fluencies encouraging students to apply technology-based solutions to real-world problems. Students are challenged to identify, inspire and imagine new and innovative approaches. As they envision and engineer these new approaches they work together cooperatively to evaluate and execute new solutions. They ask questions, analyze and apply information and data, and then listen, interpret and communicate information using multi-media tools and approaches. Students are encouraged to discover and dream about the world and its issues all the while developing digital competencies and literacy as they navigate the new technologies arising daily".
So is the promise translating to reality? Are the grand aspirations of GEMS Nations Academy being fulfilled at DAA? The answer is probably yes, and no. Certainly, the school is expanding the curriculum pathways for students, both in terms of AP and IB courses, and with a focus on AI through an AI curriculum for all students to Grade 10, a supply of over 1,200 iPads in the Elementary School, a Drone Activity agreement with Dubai Civil Aviation Authority to enable the students to build and fly drones, and a focus on coding and robotics. Students from Middle school (Grade 6) upwards bring their own devices to school.
GEMS Dubai American Academy Elementary has been recognized as an Apple Distinguished School from 2019 to 2022, for its continuous innovation in teaching and learning and implementation of technology in student learning.
Apple Distinguished Schools are centers of innovation, leadership and educational excellence that use technology to inspire creativity, collaboration and critical thinking. They showcase innovative uses of technology in learning, teaching and the school environment, and have documented results of academic accomplishment.
With 1:1 iPad in its classrooms, the school enables its students to be constantly innovating, creating and thinking critically. Whether it’s creating GIFs in Keynote, using iMovie to make tutorials to share with peers, or creating multimedia eBooks, students and teachers create and collaborate anytime and from anywhere.
Facilities, of course, including MAC rooms, Drone labs and similar technology-focused classrooms, are of the highest standard. The technology focus is not just "scientific" in nature, with the Music faculty, for instance, including both a Recording and a TV studio, and green screen room.
Superintendent Tammy Murphy talked to us about developing the soft skills of students and the cross-curricular approach of DAA's curriculum which integrates technology, such as AI, robotics and drones, with media and art skills, and an enquiry-based approach preparing students for jobs that do not yet exist. This is what is described as Future Fluency or DAA 2.0. Certainly the new environment of DAA would appear to support a more future-focused approach far better than that of the old campus. We do see a significant investment in curriculum and resources at GEMS Dubai American Academy and are very interested to see how the school moves forward.
However, somehow, despite all of these activities taking place and the breadth of the curriculum in providing such opportunities, the sense of innovation that GEMS Nations promised does not feel quite there at DAA. This is less in the context of technology than in other curriculum areas - and notably Arabic. A particular focus of GEMS Nations was to be the teaching of Arabic which was to be a core feature of the school, with an ambition that this would be a particular strength.
The school runs annual Week Without Walls activities (usually involving both local and overseas visits to enhance students' community involvement or internship options), and this has included a group travelling to Silicon Valley to visit major technology companies. MAP testing takes place 3 times per year to assess students' performance in key curriculum areas and to ensure that they are on track or receive additional support where necessary.
DAA is known for its friendly, participatory approach to teaching. Children are said to be a happy bunch, and look forward to going to school. The school is also noted for a strong program for children who don’t have English as a first language.
What about SEND?
GEMS Education has worked on the SEND provision across all its schools for many years and has always had a more open policy. In 2013/14 academic year, 124 students at DAA had been identified as having some form of Special Educational Needs, a figure growing to 220 in 2018-19. SEND provision is deemed to be Very Good by the KHDA inspectors. The school has a governor and a champion for inclusive education and the school has an inclusive and strategic education improvement plan in place. Most students with SEND make good progress over time, according to the inspectors. Students also are provided with equivalency for the High School Diploma through the GEP programme.
What about academic achievement?
Dubai American Academy has in the past provided information on where its students head for university, although there is less detail available this year.
In 2016-17, the 146 Grade 12 students made over 1150 university applications and graduates received approximately 500 acceptances. Students have continued their education in several countries, with the largest percentage going to the United States, followed by Canada, the United Kingdom, Europe and Asia. Detailed information on destinations for 2016-17 have not been provided, but students in the class of 2015 received acceptances at top universities such as the Princeton University, Lund University, King's College London, New York University, University of Maastricht, Pennsylvania State, Columbia, Cornell, Georgetown, Boston College, Rice, McGill, University of California Berkeley, University of Toronto, University of British Columbia, University of Edinburgh, London School of Economics, and Queen Mary University.
Although only 50-70% of applications are successful, the school claims to achieve "100% entry to higher educational institutions, including the best universities and colleges around the world" in the WSA Q and A. Go here. In further correspondence with DAA, the school notes that 2% of students opt to take a gap year.
Although GEMS as a group stopped publishing exams results in 2015, in common with GEMS Jumeirah College, DAA seems to have decided to go ahead and publish themselves - something we at WhichSchoolAdvisor.com always encourage. Details can be found here.
The 2019 IB Diploma results were published on 5th July - after the start of the Summer break and closure of the school. Information about results is somewhat limited at this point in time, but WhichSchoolAdvisor.com has been informed by GEMS at a Corporate level that DAA's 2019 cohort achieved an average points score of 34 (the same as 2018) - some 4+ points above the global average of 29.62, and well above the UAE average of 32.26. 98.5% of 130 candidates for the IB program achieved a pass in 2019, although no details of highest scores or breakdown of overall scores is currently available.
Across the six schools in the GEMS group offering the IBDP programme, the pass rate was 94% and we would expect that DAA's students would be among the high achievers given their overall average figure.
What about the facilities?
The facilities of the 70,000m2 campus are truly state-of-the-art and include: a 50m Olympic pool, 400m running track, a large gymnasium, playing fields and shaded playgrounds. There are also dedicated science labs across all grades, a Technology suite, with a workshop, Visual Arts with dedicated areas for all grades, including Studios for 3D and 2D art, a Ceramics/ kiln room and Photography dark room.
Students interested in Performing Arts benefit from Music rooms, Band rooms, Individual music practice rooms, a Music technology suite, Recording studio. Performing Arts students also have access to a Theatre and Dance, an Ultra-modern auditorium seating 1,200, a Black box Digital theatre, Drama classrooms and a Dance studio. Multimedia facilities include a TV studio/‘green screen’ room, a Radio suite, Mac lab/editing suite and a Digital/blended learning zone. There are four separate libraries across the school.
Indoor Sports facilities include a Main sports hall which accommodates 3 full basketball courts with retractable seating, Elementary sports hall large enough for a full-sized basketball court, an indoor running track/fitness trail, a fully-equipped fitness suite and Sports science classrooms. Outdoor roof play areas provide space for three soccer pitches, a Baseball diamond and rooftop tennis courts.
Much investment has been made in the construction of the school, in terms of technological innovations for cooling and recycling energy. Classrooms are light, bright and as would be expected for a new-build and technologically enabled throughout. KG children all have direct access to the outside areas of the school including gardens where they plant and grow their own vegetables. Whilst the youngest children from KG to Grade 2 eat lunch in their classrooms, there are two large cafeterias for Elementary, Middle and High School students with access to outdoor space. The scale of the school is significant.
What the inspectors say (2018/2019)
GEMS Dubai American Academy is presently the only school in Dubai following an American standards-based curriculum to have been awarded an “Outstanding” rating by the Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau. It is the eighth year in a row that DAA has made the grade after three years of a Good rating, although there was no inspection in the 2016-17 academic year due to the school's involvement in the KHDA's mentoring project (the Abundance Project).
According to the KHDA, Dubai American Academy provides an Outstanding quality of education. Key strengths are:
Overall ratings across the school and key performance standards remain unchanged for 2018-19 compared with the inspection of the prior year. Attainment and progress are almost uniformly Outstanding across English, Maths and Science with the exception of attainment and progress in English and Mathematics, which has remained Very Good in the Elementary and Middle School.
Progress and attainment in Arabic and Islamic Studies remain a mix of Good and Acceptable ratings. This is of course not just an issue for DAA, but one that is widespread across international curriculum schools throughout the UAE.
In terms of the other key indicators reviewed by the KHDA inspection team, Students' Personal and Social Development and their Innovation skills, Teaching and Assessment, the Curriculum, the Protection, Care, Guidance and Support of students and the Leadership and Management of the school are rated Outstanding almost across the board. The sole exceptions are Teaching for Effective Learning in the Elementary school. Governance of the school was also downgraded to Very Good from Outstanding in 2017-18 and has retained this rating for 2018-19, due to a need for the role of the Local Advisory Board to be promoted further.
Overall recommendations for improvement from the inspection team include the need to:
To read the full KHDA inspection report - which we strongly recommend you do - please go here.
Some 445 parents participated in the KHDA pre-inspection survey and almost 90% said that they were satisfied with the standard of education the school provides. They agreed that leaders and teachers listen to them and act on their views. A large majority of parents felt that DAA offers value for money, that they are well informed and that their children are safe and well provided for.
Over 600 students responded to the survey and almost all were positive about their school experience. They are engaged with their learning, with their peers and teachers and a high proportion said that they were happy with their school.
In the WhichSchoolAdvisor.com Parent Survey, opinions are very definitely mixed. 57% of respondents say that they would recommend the school to other parents, whilst a similar number (62%) have said that they have considered moving their child to another school. 35% of parents totally disagree that the fees they pay represent value for money. However, they also feel their children enjoy going to school. And over 85% of parents are reasonably or well satisfied with the level of academic performance of their children.
If you are a parent, teacher or senior student at DAA, please share your feedback with us and other interested individuals through our Survey here.
What about the fees?
Fees at the school are in the premium range, with fees of AED 61,192 in KG1 and KG2, and from Grade 1 to Grade 12 a flat figure of AED 86,260. There is a registration fee of AED 500 for new admissions, together with a deposit of AED 10,000 on offer of a place; the latter is offset against the tuition fees in the first year. A re-enrollment fee of 10% of the tuition fees is payable annually to confirm a place for the following academic year and is adjusted against the first term's fees.
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