West Yas Academy Abu Dhabi, located on Yas Island, is the first US curriculum school to be operated by Aldar Academies.
The story so far...
Located on a very large campus adjacent to Ferrari world and the main hotel locations close to the Yas Marina circuit, West Yas Academy (WYA) will eventually accommodate approximately 1,500 students from Kindergarten to Grade 12 (although it is some way off this target with a current student base of approximately 940). Currently, the school is open from KG to Grade 11, and will add its final grade of High School in September 2021. The school is mixed-gender throughout.
Principal, Dr. Joseph Kotarski, introducing himself to new parents states:
At West Yas Academy,I am focused on leading a learning community where the teaching and learning culture is centered around inquiry and project-based classrooms. By exposing and challenging students to grapple with and solve authentic real-world problems,we will empower them with the needed skills to be active changemakers, positioning them to engage with the challenges the 21st-century will present.
To that end, as Principal I believe that integrating service-learning opportunities into the curriculum that connect and engage students with their own and the greater global community are essential in their social-emotional and intellectual development. I pride myself on service leadership to the school and community, through service, leadership, and engagement I enthusiastically lead the continued development of West Yas Academy.
The school opened in September 2016 with approximately 285 children in classes from KG to grade 6 and now has approximately 700 students. A massive 40+% of students in the Middle School section were new to the school in 2018-19, which has clearly presented challenges. As a growing school, around 30% of students are in the KG section, just over 50% in the Elementary section, and the remaining 20% in the Middle and Junior High School sections. Almost three-quarters of students are Emirati with the balance from thirty different countries including 5% of students from the USA, 2% Egyptian and 1% Jordanian.
A significant proportion of students require English language support and resources are being developed within the school and in coordination with the Director of SEN for Aldar to ensure that children with additional learning needs have these met and are monitored through the provision of an independent education programme.
Commenting on their focus, WYA's introduction for new parents notes that "We recognize that some students find aspects of school life or learning difficult, while others may excel in particular areas. We pride ourselves on meeting the needs of all of our students, starting with personalized learning opportunities for every student in class with their regular teachers. For some students this may mean receiving help from our learning support team. Others may be involved in special projects specifically for our gifted students. Our gifted programmed is supported by curriculum enrichment activities."
There are currently 84 teaching staff and a further 20 teaching assistants at the school with a mix of nationalities from the US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Staff who have joined the school from the US have received extensive professional development since their arrival, in order to ensure that they settle into the local environment and are mindful of UAE culture. A relatively high staff turnover of 24% in 2018-19 may well be a reflection of increases in staff as the school has grown rather than staff discontent. In general, international schools average turnover of between 20-22%.
A teacher to student ratio of 1:11 should ensure that students receive sufficient individual attention.
What about the curriculum?
The Academy offers a US Common Core, Massachusetts State Curriculum, which is one of the most highly regarded State curricula in the United States. The state of Massachusetts has long established links with prestigious higher education institutions such as Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The curriculum places strong emphasis on science, technology and literacy across all subjects with a particular emphasis on STEM subjects which are integrated into the curriculum. Students have access to iPads and laptops as well as dedicated ICT labs.
The Kindergarten (KG) includes both KG1 and KG2. The minimum age for entry to KG1 is three years, eight months on the 1st of September (or four years old by the following 1st January).
Elementary school is for students in Grades 1 to 5. The curriculum includes Arabic, English Language Arts, mathematics, science, social studies, Islamic studies (for Muslim students), health and physical education, the creative arts and Integrated Learning.
Middle School is for students in Grades 6, 7 and 8. From Grade 6, in addition to the core areas of learning, a range of elective subjects are offered. The core curriculum subjects for both the Middle and High Schools are Arabic, English Language Arts, Islamic studies (for Muslim students), mathematics, science, social studies, health and physical education, the creative arts, a modern foreign language (French) and integrated learning. The elective subjects are information technology, economics, business education, United States history, pre-Calculus, electronics and computer coding.
In the High School, for students in Grades 9 to 12, WYA offers Advanced Placement (AP) courses during the latter high school years, which are taught using syllabi that can later be credited to degree programmes in many U.S. and Canadian universities. AP enables academically prepared students the opportunity to pursue university-level studies while still in high school, with the opportunity to earn credit (points toward an undergraduate degree) or advanced placement (the opportunity to skip an introductory-level university course).
Given that there is no US-wide or US curriculum public leaving exam process (unlike the UK curriculum A Level or BTEC qualifications, the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme or public school leaving examinations held across many countries for qualification to university, AP is recognised as a desirable academic credential around the globe. It is recognised by more than 4,000 universities worldwide including, outside the U.S., more than 600 universities in over 65 countries.
The WYA curriculum is implemented through an Inquiry-based Framework (echoing the framework originally largely developed by the International Baccalaureate Organisation) and prepares students for life after school, providing regular opportunities for inquiry, innovation, critical thinking, collaboration and leadership. West Yas has well established links with New York University, Khlaifa University and Paris Sorbonne University in Abu Dhabi.
There is also strong focus on co-curricular activities designed to foster well rounded students. Life outside the classroom is rich and varied. Many opportunities are available, including soccer, volleyball, basketball, swimming, Jiu-Jitsu, vocal music, baking, decoupage, drawing, drama, yearbook, mathematics, French, Spanish, Quran, just to name a few.
There are opportunities to learn musical instruments and take part in regular ensemble or orchestra performances including a school Choir. Aldar Academies Music Service provides regular tuition for students wishing to learn or develop their musical abilities. Lessons in guitar, saxophone, cello, clarinet, drums, euphonium, French horn, flute, piano, recorder, trombone, trumpet, violin and viola are available through the Academy Music Service.
WYA assesses the learning of children in the Kindergarten very frequently, using a range of indicators of cognitive and emotional development. Older students’ learning is formally assessed using Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) tests to assess achievements in the core areas of learning. These tests are developmental and allow all students to experience success during the assessments. In all subjects, students of all ages have their learning monitored continuously using a variety of methods.
Older students have their learning assessed at the end of Units of Inquiry, each term and end of each academic year. Assessments are in the form of tests, examinations, extended writing, projects, culminating activities, presentations and performances. Summary assessments form a significant part of the final grades that students earn. Senior students will write Advanced Placement examinations in May of their graduating year. The school is also a centre for SAT assessments, often required for college or university applications.
Students will graduate with an Aldar Academies West Yas Academy Diploma at the end of Grade 12. The diploma will be recognised through accreditation by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), one of the US School and College Associations, and among the two most highly regarded. The diploma will be granted based upon a combination of course work and final examinations, including AP exams. Students’ overall grade point averages (GPA) will be calculated from all assessments to facilitate their entry to colleges and universities.
What about the facilities?
Facilities at the WYA are state-of-the-art and have been designed to meet the needs of 21st century learners. These facilities include a 400-seat auditorium, extensive music, drama and art facilities, research laboratory, graphic design area, music recording studio and recital hall.
The school has abundantly equipped music and choral rooms for vocal and instrumental lessons, along with a large auditorium and smaller black-box theatre where assemblies and dramatic performances are regularly held. STEAM subjects are delivered in specially designed practical science laboratory spaces, art, design and textile studios, as well as engineering workshops and industry standard culinary arts kitchens.
The Academy has incorporated state-of-the-art 3D technology including 3D projectors, green screens, use of Mobile and Tablet devices and new software technology into the curriculum to help students better understand abstract ideas. Using the technology, they can visualise, inspect, and decipher study materials right in front of them, which is a far more effective way to retain knowledge than transcribing a lecture.
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WYA offers facilities for a broad range of sports, including volleyball, basketball, softball and soccer. Both the large and small playing fields have third generation AstroTurf (3G) for use in all kinds of weather. The Lower school, Middle and High School sports areas also include indoor and outdoor viewing galleries. In addition, there is a multi-purpose sports hall, dance studio, basketball and netball courts, soft playing areas, and two large swimming pools which allow swimming to be delivered to as a core part of the curriculum.
For students, support for learning is promoted through a well-equipped library, seminar rooms for small group teaching, a senior school centre and video conference suites to facilitate links with other schools and education institutions across the world.
West Yas also has a well-resourced and fully staffed medical clinic with qualified health professionals on duty throughout the school day.
What the inspectors say?
West Yas Academy was inspected for the second time by the ADEK inspection team in February 2019 and again achieved a Good rating following its first inspection in 2016-17.
The summary of the inspection reads "The overall performance of the school is good. Students achieve well in most core subjects in all phases because teaching is good, and the teaching in KG is especially innovative. Attainment is acceptable in the majority of subjects in the middle school is good but many of the new students are making good progress from their low starting points. Senior and middle leaders are successfully sharing responsibility for improving standards and governors are now more effective in holding leaders to account. Monitoring of teaching needs to focus more, however on improving outcomes for students, especially in Arabic where achievement remains acceptable."
Whilst the key performance standards of Student Achievement, Teaching and Assessment and the Curriculum - the latter two standards being fundamental to the first - have remained unchanged overall at Good in the current inspection, Students' Personal and Social Development and their Innovation skills have improved to Very Good.
The protection, care, guidance and support of students also retained its Very Good rating, whilst the Leadership and Management retained its Good rating.
Strengths of the school were found to be:
In terms of areas of improvement, the inspection team identified a detailed list that will provide considerable challenge to West Yas Academy over the intervening period before their next inspection in 2020-21.
The Academy should:
It is clear that there is considerable improvement still to come at West Yas Academy if it is to achieve the same high ratings of its sister schools, the majority of which are rated Very Good or Outstanding.
If you would like to read the full ADEK inspection report - and we strongly recommend that you do so in order to understand the reasoning behind the ratings - you can read it here.
The ADEK inspection team noted that "the school is very successful in engaging the parents in their children’s learning and in school life. It systematically gathers and acts on parents’ views."
The WhichSchoolAdvisor.com Parent Survey has had a relatively high number of responses. Parents feel that their children enjoy school and feel a strong sense of belonging. Parents are highly satisfied with the level of academic achievement at the school. They also feel that the school is able to meet their children's educational needs. Communication and disciplinary policies are also appreciated by parents. 84% of parents would unreservedly recommend West Yas Academy to other parents. As is so often the case, the one cause for discontent is the level of fees - with 12% totally disagreeing that they represent value for money.
If you are a parent, teacher or student at West Yas Academy, please share your experiences of the school with other potential members of your school community by completing our survey here.
With Aldar Academies' brand above the door, there was never any doubt that expectations for West Yas Academy would be high. The school went through a number of early staff changes at the senior level and it would seem that this has resulted in considerable improvement from ADEK's perspective. The growth in student numbers was evidently something of a challenge in its early years, but it seems that with the school about to open its final 12th Grade in 2021, it should be able to grow in a more controlled manner, allowing systems and processes to bed in fully.
There are no US curriculum schools rated Outstanding in Abu Dhabi, despite the fact that there are considerably more US curriculum schools overall than in Dubai (where GEMS' Dubai American Academy has achieved the Outstanding rating). Unlike many US curriculum schools in the emirate, we also feel that WYA is much more likely to offer a genuine American school experience than many other US curriculum schools in Abu Dhabi which are often American in name only.
With the experience already garnered at Aldar Academies with its Al Muna, Al Yasmina and the Pearl academies all having achieved the highest rating, we have no doubt that West Yas Academy has very similar designs for its future.
What about the fees?
Fees at West Yas Academy - in line with Aldar Academies' provision - are rated Very High by ADEK and fall into the premium category. KG fees start at AED 52,470, with Elementary fees from Grades 1 to 5 at AED 54,530, Grade 6 to 8 Middle School fees at AED 58,650 and High School fees from Grades 9 to 12 are AED 63,280. For these fees, however, parents and students can expect to receive the best of curriculum, teaching and facilities, together with a genuine American school experience.
West Yas Academy is a Best of school, a ranking determined by parent surveys on the site. It can be found in the following Best of rankings:
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