Bradenton Prep Academy (BPA) is one of the few US curriculum schools in the New Dubai area and probably the least well known. The school has been operating since 2009 (since the early days of development at Dubai Sports City), but it is only since GEMS Education took over management of the school 3 years ago that it has raised its profile.
GEMS took over a school that is described by parents as really something of a hidden gem with excellent buildings, resources and facilities, but has had a more difficult time establishing itself from an academic standpoint. The school has consistently been rated Acceptable by the KHDA since inspections began, with main concerns focused around the teaching of Arabic and Islamic Studies for both native and non-native speakers and the need to raise standards of teaching and planning across all phases of the school to ensure the provision of greater academic challenge and support to students.
The school has grown very rapidly and this was noted by the inspectors. However, BPA has consistently been praised for its strong senior leadership, the school’s very caring and creative learning environment, where students could thrive in their learning and development and its outstanding health and safety systems and processes.
After several changes at the top since GEMS took over management of the school, it has now brought in a very strong team to take the school forward and WhichSchoolAdvisor.com expects this to be reflected in the KHDA report for 2016/17 academic year. The new Principal, Dan Young, is a well-known figure in Dubai, having been the Founding Principal of the Outstanding-rated GEMS Dubai American Academy. Joining him in the Vice Principal role is Katherine Vavpetic, who has joined GEMS from her most recent position as the Head of Senior School at a private academy in Pittsburgh, having graduated from the prestigious New York University with a Masters’ degree in French Studies.
With 90% of teaching staff being from the US (there is a small number of other native English speakers and non-native English speakers for Arabic, Islamic Studies and Modern Foreign Languages), BPA really does feel and look like an American curriculum school. But this is not what really matters. The Senior Management team and academic faculty are wholly focused on raising standards. Since September 2016, with the new experienced American leadership, parents and students feel there has been a significant improvement in the quality of staff and teaching. In their words, there is a real sense of rejuvenation at BPA.
This rejuvenation is not just evident from the enthusiasm of students, parents and staff with whom we met, but also through progress made towards objective assessment from outside agencies. 99% of candidacy requirements for NEASC accreditation are complete – a minimum requirement for all US curriculum schools in Dubai which, going forward, will be jointly inspected by both KHDA and NEASC inspectors. As part of the accreditation process, a 25 point Action plan has been identified which will be implemented over the next 4 years and will lead to BPA being recognised as an American Quality School.
Since the majority of students head to the US for Further Education, among the goals for BPA are expansion of the AP programme to include more subjects and a focus within the school on an enhanced AERO curriculum incorporating Common Core standards for Maths and English, Next Generation Science and ACT Foreign Languages in French and Spanish. Current assessment tools include MAP testing and BPA students are already achieving a minimum 2 points grade average and above compared with the US and International standards. In order to maintain the focus on academic improvement, the school is appointing an Advisory Board composed of parents and education specialists to ensure that the targeted improvements remain on track.
Particular focus is being given to the improvement in Arabic and Islamic Studies with the use of buddy and parallel teaching between US trained teachers and the Arabic/Islamic staff to provide ongoing mentoring and training. Innovation is a standard for all subjects and is more than just technology based. At BPA, it is seen as being integral to learning and engagement with a particular emphasis on team and group work. Homework is designed to further extend learning with guided practice. It is not for parents to teach and nor should students be overburdened; there is an expectation of independent learning and homework forms part of this practice.
Academics alone though, are not the sole focus of the BPA team. There is a large platform for performing arts and due to the relatively small size of the school (745 students currently with a capacity for 950 – so small by Dubai standards), this enables students from all grades to be involved. Aside from theatrical and musical performance, a String programme has been introduced with instruments provided by BPA and there are a number of smaller music and instrumental groups in combination with the GEMS Music Academy. In 2016, the school Glee Club put on a Whole School production of Annie which won the GEMS inter-school Best Musical and also raised AED 20,000 for a children’s charity in the process.
As would be expected with any American school, Sports also plays an important role. The school has use of the track and field facilities of Dubai Sports City and regularly place high in soccer, basketball and track and field competing in DASSA leagues. A new swimming pool (with junior training pool) was opened at the school in 2015.
WhichSchoolAdvisor.com’s team was invited to meet with parents, many of whom are involved with the very active Parents’ Association. This was felt to be a particular strength of the school community, arranging numerous activities throughout the year, a lifeline for new parents and with strong participation across all nationalities, adding significantly to the culture of the school. The culture was described as one of friendliness and camaraderie, embracing all nationalities, their differences and similarities and providing an opportunity to explore. The parents felt there was huge strength in this diversity.
All were enthusiastic supporters of the school. They particularly praised the community, small family feel where everyone knows everyone. They felt that there is a culture of openness and friendliness across the parent community. Staff were described as very positive and loving, but maintained discipline whilst going out of their way to provide extra support to students where needed. They were aware of the changes in leadership that had taken place but felt that each one had been a positive one for the school and are delighted with the new team which they expect to be in place for the longer term. Communication between the school and parents was appreciated, with bi-weekly school updates, weekly class specific updates in Elementary School and two pre-planned Parent/teacher meetings per year.
The parents we spoke with had children at various grades across the school from KG2 to grade 11. All praised the quality and appropriateness of the standards of teaching and home-work provision. They like the curriculum and timetabling of longer lesson periods (80-90 minutes) which enabled their children to be more focused on the subject and to carry out guided independent learning. Much of the study for High school was described as project-based, where there is a focus on independent learning and was felt to be of a high standard, teaching the latest in US curriculum developments. They praised the peer culture in the High School which was felt to be very positive.
Particular praise was reserved for the SEN department which was felt to offer amazing support with a very strong and committed team that had been at the school for a number of years. A very personalised and individual approach is taken to both children and parents with regular meetings and a real effort by the SEN team to get to know all aspects of the students. The entire SEN team was felt to be “on the side of” the students they mentor and support. The Principal is also keen to see children welcomed who have additional needs and is committed to providing an opportunity for children to join the school, even on a trial basis, with the goal of being able to offer on-going and appropriate support within the constraints of a main-stream school and provided that the child can access the curriculum.
Parents also praised the range of clubs and increasing sports provision both within the school day and as part of the ASA offering. Whilst many are teacher-led and a mix of academic, cultural and artistic, external specialists (for which a fee is charged) support the Sports clubs in particular. There is also a wide range of Field trips and families particularly appreciated the Week without Walls which included visits to Spain in support of the Spanish linguists, a Yoga retreat to India (as part of the Wellness programme) and a visit to Cambodia supporting a local school, among other options.
The parents we met overwhelmingly felt that the school is good value for money.
Our meeting with members of the Student Council was equally positive. We met with students from grades 4 and 5 in Elementary and grades 11 and 12 in the High School. They had high praise for the teachers who promote kindness and were described as “always having everybody’s back”. Teachers were described as very supportive, always ready to talk and fun to be around – which encouraged students to get more involved in voluntary activities because of the enjoyment they have in being with the staff. There is a strong culture of volunteering within the school (a requirements for High School students as part of their Diploma programme) and this is something they would like to see expanded further.
There is also a strong culture of acceptance of diversity, driven in part by the wide range of student nationalities, which the students particularly appreciate. They were not aware of any bullying issues in the school. Students come from over 80 countries but with the highest proportion from the US, Canada, Egypt, Denmark and Korea. If the last two are slightly surprising, this is driven by the fact that BPA plays host to the Danish School which uses its facilities on a weekly basis to support Danish Mother-tongue students throughout Dubai and by an influx of Korean families involved in mainly the construction industry, who have found BPA an ideal school for their English language learners.
The students like the sense of community at the school (due to its smaller size) and the opportunity to get involved in all activities across the entire school for the same reason. They praised the collaborative approach which enables them to volunteer with a mix of age groups in classes and After School activities enabling High School students to coach Elementary students. Musical Tuesdays provide an opportunity for students to perform in the Cafeteria in front of the whole school. The only changes that students mentioned which they would like to see, were in relation specifically to the Senior School curriculum, where there was a desire for more options in AP Science programmes and the provision of a possible Honours Class for students who were not confident to undertake the AP programme.
Our tour of the school also explained why it is so popular with faculty, students and parents. It really is a very attractive campus, not unlike another very popular not-for-profit US curriculum school in Dubai, but on a smaller scale. The low-rise (two storey) buildings are set around two large quadrangles with seating and outdoor space between the main Administration block (which also includes the main Auditorium, Cafeteria and Music rooms) and the Sports facilities to the rear of the plot, the KG section next to the Administration block and the Middle and High School located opposite. The swimming pools are located further to the right of the Sports Hall. The KG and Elementary blocks have their own outdoor play areas with age-appropriate equipment for gross motor development.
Teaching blocks are light, bright with huge wide corridors which are ideal for displays of student material, but also offer large break-out areas to the rear. Classrooms are probably the largest we have seen at in school in Dubai. Class sizes are relatively small (officially a maximum of 25 in KG or 27 in grades 1-12), as many are not at capacity. This means that children have plenty of space to spread out and creative projects can take place within the classrooms as well as in the specialist Art rooms.
The Elementary School is located next to the KG section and faces a large open space which is set up for a range of basket and ball sports. Behind this space lies the recently expanded Middle and High School L-shaped block and making up the fourth side of the quadrangle is the dedicated Arts, Science, Media Centre and Library block. The ground floor rooms in the new section of the MSHS block include rooms dedicated to SEN and English Language Learners and Arabic. It also includes dedicated grade 12 classrooms. The High School Counsellor who plays a vital role in guiding students through their final study programmes and College applications is also located here.
Again, all spaces are large and beautifully arranged and resourced with a spacious entrance hall and display area in the Art block, several science labs and also very large IT rooms (take out food technology). IT is a large part of the school’s offering with laptops and I-pads used by students for research and is integrated into the curriculum with strong encouragement from staff. There is a BYOD policy from grade 6. To the rear of this central block there is access and views to the enormous sports fields and indoor facilities of Dubai Sports City to which the school has access for outdoor sports activities. The campus really is one of the most attractive we have visited and extremely generous in proportion for a small school such as BPA.
WhichSchoolAdvisor.com always advises parents to visit schools that they are considering for their children and to read beyond the inspection rating to get a real understanding of what is working well and what less so. BPA is a school that definitely benefits from that personal experience. The Senior Management team recognise that there are still challenges ahead but is very much focused on meeting and achieving them.
The overwhelming positivity of students and parents towards their school, the excellent facilities and the clear expertise and commitment of the Senior Management team really does contribute to a very positive impression. We believe that this is a school definitely worth consideration for families seeking a strong US curriculum, in an environment that has a genuine US school “feel” about it but in a community that is culturally diverse and embraces children from around the world. Students described BPA as a school where new students would find “a strong sense of community, where students connect and offer a place for you to fit in”.
- WSA Inspection, February 6, 2017
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