Woodlands Academy names new head of school

Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart Board of Trustees has voted to appoint Dawn Nichols, Ed.D., the next head of school effective July 1, 2021.

“Dr. Nichols is a highly successful educational leader who has worked in public, independent and Catholic schools,” Board Chair Mary Clare Pollard White said. “Additionally, Dr. Nichols has a very special connection to Woodlands. In 2014, she chaired the visiting committee for the school's ISACS [Independent Schools Association of the Central States] accreditation. Our school and the mission of Sacred Heart left a positive lasting impression on her, and she developed a genuine affection for Woodlands.”

Associate Head Christine Schmidt worked with Nichols on the school’s 2014 accreditation. “I found her to be an astute, dedicated and talented leader,” Schmidt said. “The report she and her team put together was foundational for many of the improvements we made in the subsequent seven years. I am thrilled she will be leading us into Woodland Academy’s next chapter.”

According to White, Nichols has accepted the position for a one-year term. “Due to factors such as COVID-19 impacting our search, we chose to select a seasoned leader who could move the school forward within a shorter timeframe than a traditional appointment,” White said. Board members are confident the next school year will be one of activity during which Woodlands Academy will continue and accelerate the progress it has achieved in recent years. Meanwhile, the Search Committee will continue its activities regarding Nichols’ successor.

Since 2016 Nichols has been head of school at St. Michael's Catholic Academy, a co-educational high school in Austin, Texas. During that time, she improved the school’s relationship with the diocese of Austin, stabilized enrollment and launched a successful capital campaign. Previously, she was head of school for 16 years at Visitation School in Mendota Heights, Minnesota, an independent Catholic all-girls school with students in grades 6 to 12. There she strengthened enrollment, was deeply involved in two successful capital campaigns, and dramatically increased the school’s endowment to more than $20 million. For several years, Nichols chaired the Board of Trustees for ISACS, the premier accrediting body for schools in the Midwest.

“I am thrilled to join the Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart community – one I know to be vibrant, dynamic and warm,” Nichols said. “The education the school provides to its students is exemplary, and I look forward to diving in and supporting the great work of the faculty and staff, administration, and board of trustees, all on behalf of the students.”

Nichols will succeed Meg Steele, who has served as Woodlands Academy’s head of school since 2015 and is leaving at the end of the current term to become head of schools at Sacred Heart Schools on Sheridan Road. Steele had previously spent 18 years at the Chicago PK-8 schools, beginning as a teacher. She soon transitioned into various leadership positions before becoming head of primary school in 2004. “This decision was a bittersweet one,” Steele said. “I have loved my years at Woodlands Academy and am simultaneously thrilled to return to Sheridan Road, which also will allow me to meet increased family obligations.”

Looking back, Steele said she is proud to have overseen a period of much growth and development at Woodlands Academy. “We have successfully implemented student-centered policies, including, but not limited to a schedule adjustment and numerous curricular innovations. Additionally, we have further defined our spot in the marketplace as a place where girls go to be empowered to change the world. This role has stretched and humbled me in ways I could never have imagined, but I know I hand over a school poised for growth across the board.” Steele added.

Located in Lake Forest, Woodlands Academy is an independent Catholic all-girls, college-preparatory day-and-boarding high school. It is part of a worldwide network of schools that spans the United States and 40 other countries. Honored as a National Blue Ribbon School for 2020 by the U.S. Department of Education, the latest Niche rankings again name Woodlands Academy the #1 Best All-girls High School and the #1 Best Catholic High School in Illinois.