Darwish Bin Karam is the oldest school in Abu Dhabi. Formerly housed in a small tent and called Al Ahlia School, it now boasts 20 classrooms and several other facilities. The school has 34 teachers and 70 support staff. Image Credit: Abdul Rahman/Gulf News

Abu Dhabi: Thousands of pupils have passed through the halls of Darwish Bin Karam School throughout its 71 years in the emirate of Abu Dhabi.

Saleh Zaid Al Shehi, the principal of the school which is managed and operated by the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec), believes that its future could only get brighter.

"When it was established in 1940 it was known as the Al Ahlia School. Its founder, Darwish Bin Karam, was an Emirati who was a religious shaikh, pearl diver, teacher and local healer," he said.

"He was always keen on encouraging learning in our community and one of the best ways he believed this could be achieved was by establishing a school," Al Shehi added.

Initially, Al Ahlia was a small tent that housed approximately 10 pupils who were taught basic reading, writing and mathematics in addition to the study and interpretation of the Quran.

"At first it was a very humble structure that was placed near the Qasr Al Hosn, which at that time was the main location around which most people preferred to live and work. It moved several times around the city, including at one point near where the new Central Market is [on Khalifa Street]," Al Shehi said.

"A few years later...Darwish moved his school to a more permanent location, which was a room in the home of Mubarak Al Subaiti, a prominent member of the community at the time," he added.

Then in 1963, Darwish went on an extended journey to Jordan to recruit teachers as part of his plan to establish a larger school. The Abu Dhabi government during that time had also called for a dedicated curriculum that meets the needs of Emirati pupils.

"He returned with several teachers who began providing a more comprehensive curriculum that included science, literature, and culture, among other subjects…later, Al Ahlia became among the first schools to offer English in the Emirate," Al Shehi said.

He also noted that over the years, the school's name changed for various reasons before the name of its founder was restored.

"In 2002, to honour his priceless contribution to the Emirate, the school was once again renamed the Darwish Bin Karam School for Boys," he said.

Al Shehi also noted that in 1994 the school had moved to new premises in an area known as "Bain Al Gesrain" (Between the two bridges).

"It is amazing looking back at the history of this school and seeing just how far it's come. We now have 20 classrooms, five learning centres, two meeting rooms in addition to a library, chemistry laboratories, expansive sporting grounds and other facilities. Our curriculum has been enhanced as well to include computing classes, mathematics, physics, chemistry, English, and much more," Al Shehi said.

"We also now have 34 teachers, who are a mixture of Emirati and expatriate in addition to approximately 70 support staff including administrators...we currently have 465 pupils, of which approximately 100 will be graduating high school this academic year," he added.

In 2006, the school was chosen by Adec to be part of its Public Private Partnership (PPP) project within the council's New School Model programme, which seeks to enhance education and provide pupils with the tools to become productive members of a knowledge-based economy.

"We are very proud to have been chosen by the Adec to be a part of their PPP project with Beaconhouse [a private school operator]. This will be our final academic year as part of it. But it was a wonderful journey, which has helped us enhance our facilities to continue giving our pupils the best education possible," Al Shehi said.

The school had received many honours including the Shaikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Award for Academic Excellence and the Shaikh Khalifa Award for Teachers (now known as the Shaikh Khalifa Award for Education), along with many sporting trophies.

"I'm very proud of what we have achieved…not only in terms of awards we have won but also the many successful projects we have launched that have fostered a love of learning among our pupils," Al Shehi said.

"We were also among the first schools to accept pupils with special needs since the Centres began integrating pupils into mainstream schools three years ago." He said teachers from both streams get regular training.

"I may have just joined in 2004 but I'm very proud of the school's rich legacy. It was an honour to be appointed here, given Darwish Bin Karam's great contribution to Abu Dhabi and I'm also very proud of our pupils, both our current ones and our graduates, who have achieved so much since leaving us," Al Shehi said.

He said alumni often stop by to catch up with former teachers.