GEMS Dubai American Academy, part of the GEMS school group, is a US curriculum school offering a US High School Diploma and 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 for seven years in a row.
GEMS Dubai American Academy has been rated Outstanding for the eighth year running in the 2018-19 KHDA inspection process. An abbreviated version of the inspection report can be found under the Inspection tab. An update of this review will be completed once the full report has been issued.
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 in its second academic year, next door to its nearest competitor, and immediate neighbour, 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 7 years.
Following DAA's relocation to the campus of the short-lived, but highly anticipated GEMS Nations Academy, student numbers have now grown to around 2,700 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 in her second 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, would suggest that these challenges have been well met.
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 233 teachers (a significant increase of 40 since 2015-16) and 75 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. By contrast, in 2015-16, the turnover was 25%, and in the year prior, 20%. This may well have more to do with the transient nature of Dubai, where teachers are generally employed on two year contracts, but it is to be hoped, with stabilisation at the new school in terms of both leadership and facilities, that this will settle a little for the future.
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 parents wanting a broader, more internationally focused qualification. The school has also announced that it will offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses as a third option for students - particularly for those seeking university entry in the US.
What about the curriculum?
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.
DAA is currently in the application process for the Apple Distinguished School accreditation - something a number of UAE schools have already achieved. 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.
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. DAA has actually moved backwards in this regard in the most recent inspection.
Having said that, the KHDA inspection team commented in their most recent report that
"the curriculum is outstanding. Forensic reviews and updating are demonstrated across the curricular areas. Students’ choice in learning and innovation is pervasive at this highly-inclusive school. The excellent range and quality of the after-school activities enhance students’ experiences. The exciting inquiry-based approach promotes continuity and progression in students’ learning. The curriculum is enhanced by the cultural and contextual relevance of the social studies and moral education programs".
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 recently 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 199 in the current academic year. 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. Full details can be found here.
The 2018 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 2018 cohort achieved an average points score of 34 - some 4+ points above the global average of 29.78, and well above the UAE average of 31.41. Unfortunately, we do not know the number of students who took the exams, nor the percentage that passed.
Across the six schools in the GEMS group offering the IBDP programme, the pass rate was 92% compared with 79% globally, and we would expect that DAA's students would be among the high achievers given their overall average figure. We also do not yet know the points awarded to the highest achievers or their university destinations - information that we hope to receive in due course.
Previously unverified data showed that DAA's IB students achieved an average score of 34 points in 2016-17, 4 points above the global average and close to those of JESS Arabian Ranches and Repton who claim the highest UAE averages. Thirteen DAA students achieved a score of 40 or higher with one student earning an almost perfect 44. Only 4.4% of students worldwide earn 40 points or more, which puts this accomplishment into perspective.
What about the facilities?
The new 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.
The KHDA inspection report commented that "The premises provide an outstanding learning environment with excellent specialist facilities. All classrooms are very well resourced to support and extend students’ learning and innovation."
What the inspectors say (2017/2018)
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 seventh year in a row 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:
It is also a rather happy school...
Dubai American Academy's entry into the WhichSchoolAdvisor.com's Happiest School in the UAE" video competition.
However, there were areas of the report which suggested that there has been some drop in achievement in the Elementary and Middle School - notably in relation to the attainment and progress in English and Mathematics, which have been downgraded from Outstanding to Very Good. The report notes that for English " Students’ progress is slightly slower in the elementary school where language usage is not sufficiently defined or developed. Students’ progress accelerates in the middle school, and in Grade 12, students demonstrate very high achievement." For Mathematics, inspectors found that "Students’ attainment in the elementary and middle schools has declined due to the inconsistent planning of differentiated activities and the lack of challenge in many of the tasks."
Similarly, progress in Arabic as a first language in Middle school has dropped back to Acceptable, due to "the lack of opportunities for them [students] to develop and apply their language skills" and in Islamic Studies, progress in the High school also fell back a rating to Acceptable due to the lower standard of Holy Qur'an recitation skills. Overall, however, the vast majority of measures are rated Outstanding for the core non-Arabic subjects and for students' learning skills.
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 (where the report notes that "The quality of teaching is more variable in the elementary school across the subjects. This is particularly true in terms of teachers’ ability to accelerate students’ progress by planning tasks that match their individual needs"). Governance of the school was also downgraded to Very Good from Outstanding, due to a need for the role of the Local Advisory Board to be promoted to further support systems of quality assurance within the school.
Overall recommendations for improvement from the inspection team include the need to:
We would expect to see a strong focus on improvement in the areas that have been downgraded in the current inspection report over the current academic year.
Just over 600 parents participated in the KHDA pre-inspection survey and almost 90% said that they were satisfied with the standard of education the school provides. Most surveyed parents stated that teachers know their children’s strengths and weaknesses well. A minority disagreed that the school promotes their children’s literacy and love of reading in Arabic. Most believe that their children are well supported in their learning,and that the school is led well. A few express concerns about the change in the school atmosphere since the move of campus. Others comment that staff have retained the school’s reputation for its ‘Culture of Kindness'.
Two-thirds of the 370 High School students who responded to the survey said that they were happy to be at DAA and commented that they feel safe in their school and are satisfied with the quality of education. Almost all stated that they make effective use of a wide range of resources, including technology, to support their learning.
217 of the school's teachers responded to the survey also. 94% said that they satisfied with the quality of education at DAA. Almost all believe there is trust and collegiality among members of staff. Most agree that the school is led well. It will be interesting to see if this level of support is reflected in staff turnover figures in the next report.
In the WhichSchoolAdvisor.com Parent Survey, opinions are very definitely mixed. 62% of respondents say that they would recommend the school to other parents, whilst a similar number (66%) have said that they have considered moving their child to another school. 36% of parents totally disagree that the fees they pay represent value for money. However, they also feel that their children have a strong sense of belonging to DAA and that they enjoy going to school. And over 80% of parents are reasonably or well satisfied with the level of academic performance of their children. If you are a parent at DAA, please do provide us with your feedback through the Parent Survey.
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.
What are the fees?
Fees at the school are in the premium range, with fees of AED 22,826 in KG1, rising to AED 59,949 in KG2 and from Grade 1 to Grade 12 a flat figure of AED 84,511.
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