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  • Writer's pictureLiz Totton

First Day of School

Enough pictures already mom!

Enough pictures already, mom!

After a few practice runs, the girls got into their uniforms, tied their ties, hailed a cab and started fresh in their new school this morning. I am waiting for them to come home in the hotel praying that they are having a great day. The school the girls are attending here in Abu Dhabi is called GEMS American Academy. It’s really new so it has all kinds of kinks to work out, but it should be a very good year for them. Bill Clinton is the Honorary Chairman and attended it’s opening in 2011! There are over 65 different countries represented in their student body. The school has a planetarium, a music technology room, university level laboratories, a black box theatre and state of the art classrooms. It has such top-notch facilities because it, like almost all the schools for foreign students here, is a “for profit institution.” I have some really big problems with this educational model so far, and we are only on Day 1.  

There's Bill in our Lobby!

There’s Bill in our Lobby!

It is so radically different that I have to admit it has left me a little homesick for our schools back in Olympia, WA. I miss friendly parent and teacher’s faces, a school I know my way around in, and a school system that for all its faults, I understand. I keep trying to remind myself about all the resources that GEMS has, but it hasn’t helped much. What’s to dislike?

  1. GEMS has a CEO, not a principal. How weird is that? I am not sure if this is the norm here in Abu Dhabi or if this is strategic somehow. In an effort to look uniquely American, this school becomes a model for the capitalist/corporate system by which the USA defines itself and so readily exports. While I have my doubts about how well this economic system is truly working in the US, I can say that it has no place in schools. It doesn’t work. Calling yourself the “CEO” of a “premium institution” on day 1 sets the bar extremely high. You had better have all your ducks in a row. You had better not have a single dead link, misspelling, grammatical error on your website. Whoops! You have all three. If you say in our orientation that you are going to send me something important, like a supply list or a uniform update this weekend, you had better do it. Whoops! You didn’t. That school had better run seamlessly. Whoops again–not a tight ship! Every facet of the fantastic facilities that you sell in your tour and on your website had better be a regular part of my child’s education. I hear they are not and hope what I hear is wrong, which brings me to the next bullet.

  2. Top-notch Facilities: Okay, so GEMS has a 3-D planetarium. It’s, of course, amazing! I cannot wait to hear about what they see and learn in there. I have heard through the “parental grapevine” that they lease this facility out to other schools and groups in the area that don’t have 3-D planetariums (like every other school in the U.A.E.). So, I see a very unique opportunity to make a lot of money here, don’t you? Parents enroll their kids into this school for such unique features as a planetarium, and they pay “premium” tuition for said features. The tour guide did not ever explicitly state just how often your child will utilize this facility because you, the parent, of course never thought to ask, right?! All you could do in your visit to the planetarium was sit back in the comfy movie theatre seat and just wish that your school had had a planetarium too and sigh, saying to yourself ”Oh! To be a kid again…I want to go to this school.” Yup, that’s what I did! Well, it turns out GEMS leases the facility out a lot, so much so that our kids use it only a few times a year. Cha-Ching! This is disappointing, but it’s not so surprising. In the “for profit educational model,” maximizing profit is the name of the game. GEMS gets a hefty tuition from parents and then the added rental fee from other schools. Profits are king!!

GEMS' Planetarium

GEMS’ Planetarium

$$$ How uniquely American. $$$

I think as I learn more about the “for profit education” model, I will discover more aspects about it that I do not like. Does that sound pessimistic? Probably. I hope to be wrong because this is my daughters’ educational reality for the foreseeable future. The pros are amazing facilities and limitless offerings. The cons are that there is, of course, a catch to all that glimmer: like many things American, there is smoke and mirrors involved. An unquestionable pro about this school is that my girls do not have to make some very hard choices that they did in the states. In their school day, they get several languages, more of the arts, and a much more well rounded education. They also have ridiculously small class sizes. Skye has 10 kids in most of her classes, and Lucie’s class is under 20. It comes with a hefty price tag though. Fortunately, Rob’s education allowance covers most of our girls’ tuition but, if I were paying out pocket (as many of my friends here are), I would demand more from this corporation. That CEO should expect to begin reporting to a new CEO: his customer base. I am going to hold him accountable.

I think there is only one pool at the new school, but there are apparently many ways to get there. You choose!

I think there is only one pool at the new school, but there are apparently many ways to get there. You choose!

***This just in***

The girls just got home. They each had a great day. I can report that Lucie made a friend from Canada who is smart, funny, sporty and really good at the monkey bars—she says. She couldn’t remember any of her other friend’s names because she cannot pronounce most of them—I imagine they will work on that. Skye also made a friend as well, but she thought it was rude to ask where she was from. All I care about is that she likes her. They tell me there are no mean girls, no popular girls, and that everyone was pretty nice and normal. I imagine it’s because almost everyone is either new to this school or new to this country and doesn’t want to look like a jerk on the very first day. I am relieved. I am also very proud of them for tackling this new, huge school with all the pluck and grace that I know they have within them. Maybe it’s good to some times be forced out of your comfort zone: to reinvent yourself and to learn that you are not pigeon-holed into the order or social hierarchy that you were in your old school or locale?! Maybe change can be good? I’ll give this corporate school a try. I guess I have no choice.

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