Currently located opposite industrial buildings in Al Qouz, this is not the most attractive of places, but the development of Dubai Hills, part of the massive Mohammed bin Rashid City, will eventually mean that all 3 schools are very conveniently located for families living in the New Dubai area and this up-market property development. A single road serves all 3 schools and there is no doubt that it can be congested. GEMS has done much to address the logistical issues through introduction of staggered timings for the 3 schools and a one way system that goes some way to alleviate the traffic. As the infrastructure for the entire area is developed, it can be expected that there will be further improvements.
GIS has had a somewhat chequered background, having initially opened under the leadership of a highly regarded UK curriculum-trained and experienced Principal. Whilst this appointment served the school well in its initial phase, the KHDA (the local regulator) places great emphasis on schools being led by leaders with specific background and experience in the curriculum being taught. Accordingly, GEMS appointed David Ottaviano in early 2016 to assume the position of Principal.
With a strong background in IB schools both in North America and as a Regional IB Director, Mr. Ottaviano certainly has the required credentials. As the second GEMS full IB continuum school in the UAE (GEMS World Academy is the other), GEMS has also placed focus on ensuring strong support in relation to the curriculum for all GEMS IB schools worldwide through the appointment of James McDonald as Senior Curriculum Leader and we were able to meet with both these very experienced and enthusiastic IB practitioners.
The IB programme is the fastest growing among schools internationally and GEMS’ Chairman Sunny Varkey has been keen to see expansion of the curriculum within his group.
Since its opening, GIS has grown from 300 students to 1,200 (total capacity is 3,500). This is truly an international school with students coming from 93 different countries. The largest nationality group is Indian, but these students only make up 10% of the total cohort.
A welcoming Parent Café at the entrance offers a sizeable supply of Russian magazines – a hint that there are a significant number of Eastern European families associated with GIS - and GEMS has responded proactively to this by appointing a Ukrainian, Russian-speaking Parent Relations Executive. The school is hoping to find other key staff to support families from nations as diverse as Italy, Canada, multiple European and Latin American countries as well as the US and other English speaking countries.
As is inevitable with such a large mix of students, English language learners (ELL) make up a significant part of the school population – over 50% of students are Arabic speakers – but there is also a vast range of other languages spoken by students. This need has been addressed through two separate methodologies; firstly, the provision of ELL classes which are based on the needs of the students and may initially start with 1-1 teaching, before moving on to small group sessions and finally in-class support. In addition, teaching staff are all IB-trained and English speaking, but not necessarily native-English speakers. Staff are drawn from 23 nationalities from the UK, Canada, United States, but also a range of European countries, Syria and Jordan and therefore speak many of the languages spoken by their students.
Another major focus of the school is to enable children to retain and extend their native language. Second language staff provide a weekly 2 hour mother-tongue class for children from Russia, Italy and the Netherlands. In addition, German and Portuguese are offered through an external provider. The school is currently considering offering Hindi as the next possible option where students would be able to follow a 25 week programme for AED 3,000. The weekly schedule at GIS has been redesigned to incorporate language learning for both ELL and non-English native-speakers.
GIS also includes support for children with Special Educational Needs or where they are identified as Gifted and Talented. Approximately 90 children currently participate in programmes tailored for their needs. A team of 6 SEN teachers work with children with conditions such as Dysgraphia to Cognitive delays and additional staff are planned to join this team for the next academic year.
Currently, GIS offers students the PYP and MYP IB programmes from KG1 to Grade 10. This provision will extend to Grade 11 and 12 to include the IB Diploma programme which is currently offered by several other GEMS schools in combination with the UK curriculum. An unusual feature of GIS is the full day programme offered to both KG1 and KG2. This means that the whole school finishes at the same time. The afternoon programme is play-based and enables younger children to engage socially, carry on with educational activities if they wish, or take a nap as necessary. There is no doubt that this must be a convenient arrangement for parents with older children in the school.
The MYP programme is also being offered in an innovative way at GIS. With a relatively small student cohort in the Secondary school, there was a risk that subject options might have been limited. GIS has resolved this by offering the GEMS-owned Pamoga global on-line IB programme which is used by 5,000 students worldwide. This offers 21 courses – a much wider range of subjects compared with a regular school environment – and enables students to resolve possible timetable conflicts, take a broader range of courses and benefit from the discipline involved in on-line learning. GIS will introduce the MYP Diploma exam for students from May 2018 and should have its first IB Diploma Programme cohort in May 2019. The school also intends to match the diversity of the student body through offering the IB Certificate Programme (a more vocational course).
One of the challenges of offering an IB programme is the way in which students study – a concept based inter-disciplinary approach that does not make for a simple method of measurement of progress and attainment. GIS has implemented CATIV and MAPS testing to ensure that the correct standards are being met in English, Maths and Science. Both Dr. Ottaviano and Mr. McDonald firmly believe that the IB programme is the best one for students in a rapidly changing world, where learning how to learning is the key. They support this view with research from the UK where top universities have found that 97% of IB Diploma students were prepared effectively for university compared with 90% of A Level students.
Our tour of GIS showed that there are some very attractive and well-resourced facilities. KG 1 and 2 classes are located away from the hussle and bussle of the main school in a ground floor section to themselves. As well as very light, modern classrooms, children also have access to a shaded and partly covered outdoor space with large quantities of outdoor play equipment that is sheltered from the sun and usable virtually all year round. KG classes have a maximum of 23 students; this number increases to 25 for Grade 1 and 27 thereafter.
Classrooms for older students are located on the first and second floors of the building, with Elementary students on the first floor and Secondary above them. A full range of specialist Science and Technology classrooms as well as the usual IT facilities are available.
The ground floor also offers a large, bright canteen which overlooks one of the sports fields.
Other facilities include a large indoor sports hall and adjacent indoor swimming pool which can be used throughout the year. There are also plentiful facilities for students interested in the creative arts including a black-box theatre, Recording and TV studios and multiple music rooms. One of the most attractive features of the school is the outdoor Auditorium which is used for performances during cooler weather.
GIS is one of the few schools we have visited that really is an international school in its broadest sense. The mix of students and staff, the lack of predominance in terms of nationality, the truly international curriculum (probably the only internationally-known curriculum which is really transferable from one school to another and one country to another) makes it seem as though GEMS International School truly wants to live up to its name, to be open to all-comers and to provide a genuine and sincere environment for international learning and friendship.
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