AL AIN // When he was brought in to assist the school he helped launch, Dr Wilfred Bock knew he would have to make difficult decisions to reverse its failing trajectory.
The South African set up Al Ain American Private School nearly 10 years ago but, since his departure that inaugural 2006-2007 academic year, it had consistently been among the poorest-performing in the emirate.
In 2013 and 2014, inspectors said it was “in need of significant improvement” and grouped it with other failing schools under the Band C category.
The following year the school’s owner called Dr Bock.
“He asked me, would you take it back because I am in a crisis,” said Dr Bock, who has also worked for the Abu Dhabi Education Council and Gems Education.
The first thing Dr Bock did was meet every member of staff and reinterview them for their jobs. If positive changes were to happen, he would need a strong staff who would be willing to follow their new leader and be open to the challenges that lay ahead. He replaced about 70 per cent of the staff.
“It’s hard to cut, but you have to cut,” said Dr Bock.
He also purged heads of faculty, or coordinators as they were called, and established a system that would allow teachers to become peer mentors for one term.
“So every teacher gets a chance to lead,” said Dr Bock. “The teachers love it, they love the fact that they’re all equal. It’s not like this one is the boss for the year, all of them get an opportunity. They learn from each other.”
With his new staff ready, Dr Bock turned his attention to the facilities. The classrooms were rearranged to promote collaborative learning. He had his staff set up hands-on learning areas throughout the school.
“In our corridors we’ve got, for example, a newsroom. Pupils can go and access it where they can do loads of vocabulary games,” said Dr Bock.
Another corridor has a souq area where students can measure fabrics and pretend they are making their own kanduras. The school spent about Dh2 million on building its resources, he said.
Then, when school started, he focused on the pupils.
“When I took over, pupils didn’t even have basic social skills,” said Dr Bock. He began greeting the pupils in the mornings, asking about their weekends and modelling courteous, friendly behaviour in the hallways.
“So there was a huge social change as well,” said Dr Bock.
Al Ain American Private School was one of only two, along with the Indian-curriculum Sunrise English Private School, this cycle to move from a Band C, or “in need of significant improvement,” to a Band A, or high performing.
Effective leadership is the key to turning a school around, said Judith Finnemore, an education adviser with Focal Point Management Consultancy, which worked with reforming Al Ain American Private School.
“There has to be someone with experience at the top who sets the direction and stays on the path,” said Mrs Finnemore.
“Experienced leaders have resilience and are ready for glitches. They can see them coming, but they also know how to fix them.”