Universal American School (UAS) is located in Dubai Festival City, close to the Mall of the same name and within walking distance of the Al Badia residential area. The school is convenient for those living in nearby areas such as Deira, Al Khawaneej, Nad al Sheba, Mirdiff and Al Garhoud. For those residing further afield, there are buses from numerous locations across the city.
We arrive just after morning drop off and enter via security gates. There appears to be ample parking for staff. A smiling and organised security guard checks our ID and directs us to a reserved parking bay.
We enter the school via an atrium like reception area. The space is modern, bright and open and has comfortable seating arranged around video screens. These screens show footage of students reflecting on their experiences within the Al Futtaim Internship programme (more on that later) and other school events and achievements. During our tour of the school we learn that this reception area is the first of several planned refurbishments to the school.
Our first meeting of the day was with a group of parents. Our UAS parent panel had children attending the school from grades KG2 to Grade 12.
The parents of Universal American School certainly had much to say about their school, so much so that we were not able to cover the full range of questions we usually would on a WSA School Experience visit! Fortunately, parent uptake on our SCHOOL SURVEY has been very high, adding extra information to our thoughts and experiences of the school.
The parents agreed that their main reasons for choosing UAS were the American curriculum, location and personal recommendations. Our panel wanted to highlight that this is a “grounded school, a true community school” that has been through an “evolution” since the change in management (in 2018, the school moved from ESOL Education to management by the local Al Futtaim Group, via the not-for-profit Al Futtaim Education Foundation. The Foundation also manages nearby sister school Deira International School). On the whole, this change in management was popular. One parent had praise for the impact of Al Futtaim, saying that,
“Al Futtaim has brought about a change in ethos. We feel they [the leadership] are now more accountable to a Board, which is good”.
These sentiments were reinforced by a majority of our panel who felt that though the school had been through some changes and challenges in recent times, the teaching team, reinvigorated leadership, facilities and (most importantly, for the parents) the exceptionally strong sense of an international, inclusive community had made them loyal to UAS.
One mother told us that she had twins in the school who were treated “absolutely” as individuals. She felt strongly that “kids don’t have to fit in a box here”. She also liked the holistic facets of UAS education, mentioning mindfulness in class as a highlight. Her children had joined UAS from a school in Lebanon and whilst there were some integration issues at first, the School Counselors had resolved the problems quickly.
These positive viewpoints were underscored by a number of comments from our survey:
"It went through a mild tumult 2 years ago, but the leadership, teaching, and atmosphere now are outstanding" Sept 2019
"Strong parent community, diverse student body, great sports and afterschool programs, good facilities. Good location" Sept 2019
"Great community togetherness with involvement of parents through various volunteering programs” Sept 2019
As with all schools, parents had some gripes and they were glad of a forum to share them. At UAS, these issues appear to centre on curriculum (or perceived lack thereof) in particular subjects and phases (Maths, History and the Middle Years were noted) and on staff retention.
As one parent said,
“Staff retention has been an issue and this has presented issues in some areas of the curriculum. In particular, Maths went through a difficult time. But things are turning around! The sense of community has never changed and the efforts of the new administration can be clearly seen”.
Again, this was echoed in comments given via our survey:
"Staff attrition is high" Sept 2019
(As we detail in our UAS SCHOOL REVIEW, teacher turnover ran at “31% in 2018, and 25% in 2017, [which] is considerably above the UAE average (of 20-22%). It seems likely that this level of turnover results from the recent change in management, which has resulted in a complete overhaul of staffing at all levels”).
With this balance of pros and cons from parents in mind, it was time to for our next meeting with School Director, Mr Ole Bernard Sealey.
Principal Mr Sealey is a Canadian educator with a wealth of international school and IB curriculum experience. He became Director of UAS in 2018, having previously been UAS High School Principal and before that Head of Secondary at Greenfield International School. In total, he had been with UAS for a little under 5 years at the time of our visit.
Before education, Mr Sealey’s first passion was for sport, in particular rugby. Age 17, his sporting achievements were almost curtailed before they began, when he broke his neck on the rugby field. Mr Sealey tells us that this experience “changed his entire identity”. Describing the challenges of his recovery, Mr Sealey speaks passionately about the “remarkable teachers who rallied around and supported me”.
Having seen how “great teachers can provide children with the support, help and guidance they need”, his career focus turned to teaching. Mr Sealey’s initial plan was to teach PE, but whilst at university he discovered a passion for Humanities and focused on these subjects for the early part of his career.
Mr Sealey later reflected on the recent changes and current trajectory of the school, saying that,
“We have had some turbulence, but we are now out the other end. We have a new strategic plan and positive identity. What is next is to improve upon but still preserve who we are. We have excellent teachers and we want to allow them to thrive! Together we are working hard to ensure consistent curricula resources across the school to link to Common Core. We have a series of robust plans to improve facilities. Looking at subject areas, our focus for the foreseeable future will be physical education, performing arts, maths, STEM, Arabic and Islamic. It’s all coming together and as a team we are excited for what is ahead”.
This consolidation of achievements is reflected by the KHDA, who rate the school as Very Good. Read more on this in our UAS SCHOOL REVIEW. In terms of government ratings, Mr Sealey has a clear goal, to become “outstanding” by 2023.
Alongside the improvements within the school, UAS students are now able to benefit from the connection to the multi-disciplinary Al Futtaim Group, in the form of the Al Futtaim Internship Programme. Older students from UAS (and sister school Deira International School) can select both summer internships and/or ongoing weekly early release placements within one of the many business areas of the Al Futtaim Group.
Mr Sealey is excited by what this will mean for his students. So far, following the “soft launch” of the internship programme this year, students have gained experiences in areas as diverse as nursing, radiology, retail marketing, HR, and the automotive and real estate industries. The programme fits well with Mr Sealey’s vision of helping children “become the best version of themselves”. More than that, Mr Sealey sees the internship programme as a great complement to the KHDA’s customisable education platform, Rahhal.
“The internship programme will offer our students a practical glimpse into their future and the opportunity to network with professionals in their chosen field”. Mr Ole Sealey, Director
We round off our discussion with Mr Sealey by discussing the school as a working environment. He describes his team as having “very close bonds” and from talking to him at length, his own complete commitment to them is palpable. He hopes to retain great teachers by providing a happy, nurturing working environment and a thorough programme of bespoke professional development.
On our visit we met a group of students from Grade 9-12. We began by asking what makes them proud of their school? The number of responses was considerable and included “diversity, activities, arts, sports, the range of opportunities, the academic achievement…but most of all, the community”. The group felt that new students are always given a warm welcome.
Their favourite memories of the school include the “Week without Walls” which saw students travelling to locations as far afield as Cambodia and Borneo, as well as lots of interesting local trips. The student also complimented the school counselors, who were “great” and “easy to talk to”. They said that there was very little bullying at the school, and if it was to occur it would be quickly dealt with by staff.
We then asked the students to place themselves in the office of Mr Sealey for a day…what changes would they make as School Director?
First and foremost…the canteen! The students felt that the current building (a semi-permanent structure, which in our opinion did look to be well beyond its intended life span) was poorly designed, creating long queues for food and taking time out of an already “too short” lunch break. They would also like to see more variety in the food menus.
The students had a mature awareness that their school had recently been through a time of change. Losing well liked teachers had been a notable issue, especially as some had left during exam periods. That said, the students felt things were “much more stable” now and that their teachers were hard working, supportive and approachable. “They always take time to hear our voice” said one student.
The UAS Teaching Team
We asked the UAS leadership team to select a group of Department Heads who represented areas of the school they would especially like to celebrate. First, we met Mrs Maram, Head of Arabic (A) [n.b. in the UAE, Arabic A refers to Arabic first language students, Arabic B to the remainder, studying Arabic as a second language].
Mrs Maram was keen to highlight the excellent IB Diploma scores for Arabic A students at UAS. With the world average Arabic A IB score being 5.1, UAS students of 2018/19 scored an average of 5.9 (and of the cohort of 38 students in 2018/19, 30 scored more than 5). Mrs Maram felt this success had come about by creating a love of Arabic through literature, poetry, short stories, novels and plays. “No other school in Dubai has these scores!” she commented.
We then meet Rianne Fox, Early Years Coordinator, Brianna Hall, Secondary Dean of Students, Jarrett Dodge, Head of English and Kiersten Roush, Maths Leader of Learning.
We asked the teachers for examples of successes in each of their departments. For Mrs Fox, the introduction of wraparound daycare for children from PreK to Grade 5 had been a welcomed new initiative. Named “LEAP” (for “Learn, Enrich, Activate and Personalise”) the extra session allowed children to stay at school until 6pm each day, receiving a hot meal and taking part in a variety of activities such as “individually selected sports, mindfulness, lego stations, jungle gym and outdoor time”. For older children, the programme offered homework help and time for socialising. LEAP had been well received by the school community, especially by working parents!
For Ms Hall in the secondary school the “UN Student Council” and innovative learning using AI were particular highlights. For Mr Dodge, the most important aspect of school life was that his department and teachers had freedom and trust…at UAS “you’re not just a cog in the machine!” he said. Both appreciated the support from the leadership team in terms of their own professional development.
For Kiersten Roush, Maths Leader of Learning, the new academic year had got off to a strong start. She recognised that the last two years had “thrown up some challenges” but that having retained all of the Maths department teaching staff for the last 7 years and with a renewed focus on aligning the curriculum and peer to peer moderation, the department was now primed for success.
At some point or another in every school’s history, there comes a period of challenge, transition and change. To successfully navigate such a time whilst retaining a Very Good school rating (and, it should be noted, in a time of increasing rigour and expectation in terms of Dubai’s school inspection framework) along with the loyalty and commitment of your community is quite some feat.
That said, there is no doubt the memory of the period is still fresh, and new, firmer more solid foundations are still being built up. WhichSchoolAdvisor.com is looking forward to revisiting this inclusive, “grounded” community school in the coming years just to see what the new team has created from its truly impressive base.
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