American Community School reflects on 40 years passed

As former pupils mark the school's anniversary, administrators are looking ahead to its future.

Photo of students at the American Community School in Abu Dhabi
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ABU DHABI // As the American Community School of Abu Dhabi prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary this week, it is not only taking stock of what it has accomplished but also of what lies ahead.

"We are facing an interesting period in our history," said principal Bob Gross, who kicked off a week of celebrations, today, amid a gathering of 500 former students, their families and teachers.

"The school will see a bright future, in line with what Abu Dhabi wants to achieve in the coming years. Now is the time to substantially upgrade our facilities. We are setting ourselves up for the next 40 years.

The US curriculum school was founded in 1972 on a campus near the Japan Oil Company off Sheikh Zayed the First Road, by the US diplomatic mission and representatives of major oil companies.

In 1975 the campus moved to its current location on Sultan bin Zayed Street - a site donated by President Sheikh Khalifa and further extended by him in 1989. This allowed ACS to add a high school and more extra-curricular offerings, including media centres, a theatre, a dance studio and multipurpose rooms.

Sohail Jashanmal, an artist and founder of the art show Green Abu Dhabi, was among the first 12 to graduate from the new high school in 1993.

"We were a very tight group in school and the bunch of us are still very good friends," said Mr Jashanmal, 37. Among the group was Khaldoon Al Mubarak, the chief executive of Mubadala and a guest speaker at Friday's event.

"A particular reason we are together is because we went through this education experience together and then went to Boston University together as well," said Mr Jashanmal.

"I was very lucky that the school expanded at the time I joined because before that families had to send their children abroad to complete high school."

The school has grown from educating 50 pupils in the 1970s to 1,040 children today. Over the past few weeks, ACS staff put in extra hours revisiting the past and re-establishing ties with those who once walked the school's hallways.

Old records were pulled to create a timeline, photographs were collected to create an archive and former pupils were tracked down.

"We want to set up a strong alumni base, which is currently missing," admitted Mr Gross.

Makram El-Zyr, 36, is now the corporate vice president of development of Rotana Hotels. He studied at ACS from 1990 to 1993 and is very pleased about efforts to bring old classmates back together. "It was like a family back then," he said, "a small-knit class that did everything together. It made us appreciate friends growing up and also pushed us to succeed."

The US Embassy, which funds the school, is highly involved in safety measures on campus. A regional security officer does regular checks and suggests security upgrades.

The State Department extends an annual grant to run the school and has funded the installation of CCTV and fitted bulletproof windows around the campus.

But while the facilities are good, they can no longer accommodate their plans for growth, according to Mr Gross.

"All our facilities are getting old and space has become a problem," he said.

The school's last renovation was undertaken in 2000, when a new elementary school building was constructed in a record time of eight months.

"It was a real community project, with everyone - teenagers, parents, teachers and staff - helping to empty the old building before demolition," said Valerie Cox, the director of communications at the school.

The next step, Mr Gross said, is to either upgrade the current campus or move to a new location. "It depends on the funds we can raise," he said.

Famous personalities who have visited the American Community School in Abu Dhabi:

1975 Santa Claus arrives at ACS by helicopter. Breakfast with Santa has been a tradition at ACS ever since.

1976 Astronauts Vance Brand, Thomas Stafford and Donald Slayton of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

1982 Alex Haley, author of Roots, visits ACS – one of many authors who have met with pupils.

1983 Mohammed Ali

This article has been amended. It incorrectedly stated that Queen Elizabeth II of Britain visited the American Community School in 1979. The error was made due to incorrect information supplied.