Abu Dhabi: It started in a small shed-like structure with just three teachers and 27 students.
Today, the American Community School (ACS) in Abu Dhabi boasts many people of note who call the school their alma mater, including the CEO of Mubadala Development Company, Khaldoun Al Mubarak, and Lucas Peros, a Croatian actor known for playing Marseille in the hit Netflix drama Money Heist.
With the institution set to shift to a new campus on Saadiyat Island by 2023, officials and students are looking back on the school’s almost 50-year journey, and envisioning how it will help further the UAE’s strategic goals.
Monique Flickinger, school superintendent, told Gulf News: “ACS is an example of the long-standing relationship between the UAE and the United States. It started in 1972 with a handful of students, with the current Al Bateen campus inaugurated in 1976, in the presence of members of the [Abu Dhabi ruling family] and then-US Ambassador to the UAE, Michael Sterner. Today, this original building in Al Bateen is our middle school structure, and we enrol up to 1,200 students a year.”
Living on campus
When ACS first opened its doors, the UAE was less than a year old. The majority of built structures were concentrated around the Abu Dhabi Corniche and Al Bateen district, and the school was established on land gifted by the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the UAE’s founding father.
The first students in the non-profit community school were enrolled in Grades 1 to 8. Over the years, school officials lived on the campus, recollected Abeer Dajani, a Grade 1 teacher who has been with the school for 28 years.
“I remember Jim Ambrose, who was superintendent from 1986 to 1994, and the first high school principal, John Hackworth, living on campus until the early 1990s. It was only when the school grew to add more high school grades that they found new places to live,” Dajani said.
The school saw its first graduating class in 1993, with Al Mubarak part of this batch. By then, the school campus included a swimming pool, a gym, science labs, and a performing arts and music centre.
When the school moves to its new campus, it will be able to accommodate 30 per cent more students and increase its capacity to 1,600 students a year. The size of the campus will be doubled to 60,000 square metres, making room for a fully-fledge athletics complex, among other facilities.
“We will have a full performance theatre there and a dedicated athletic complex. The labs will also be advanced facilities where students can hope to create technology rather than just consuming it. In keeping with the goals of the UAE, we are also looking at embedding space into our teaching and learning. And an Arabic Language Centre will host conferences and trainings to advance Arabic language teaching and learning in the UAE and the Middle East,” Flickinger said.
“Our new facility [will essentially provide] the space for greater innovation, creativity and collaboration to prepare our students - the leaders of tomorrow - to thrive as global citizens in an increasingly complex and rapidly-changing world.”
Nearly 90 per cent of ACS graduates are accepted into the top three universities of their choice. Now, authorities at the school are also discussing scholarships for students who are passionate to avail its education ethos and standards, especially as its tuition ranks among the highest in Abu Dhabi.
“We are a non-profit school, so 85 per cent of the tuition goes into staffing. But there is discussion about working with corporations to fund deserving and worthy students who wish to join,” she added.
At a ground-breaking ceremony for the new campus, alumni said the institution still plays a prominent role in their lives.
“ACS is still a big part of my life. I was in the first graduating class and now, almost 30 years later, my children attend ACS. As a family, we are proud to be part of the school’s long history of academic innovation and excellence,” Al Mubarak said.
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“This is a wonderful school. I think it has made an immense contribution to this country and to Abu Dhabi over the years. We [are celebrating our] 50th anniversary as a nation, and this school has been part of this journey hand-in-hand, with the journey of the UAE and, of course, of Abu Dhabi. I think ACS is going to bring a lot of happiness to a lot of children for many generations to come. A lot of pupils that will graduate from this institution will go on and do great things,” he added.
The school will celebrate its own 50th year in its 2022-2023 academic year.