Meet Karen O’Donnell: Golden Hills’ head of school

By From page A4 | September 11, 2013

As the new head of Golden Hills School, Karen O’Donnell can be seen most days mingling with the school’s junior kindergarten to 8th graders, nearly 200 students in all.  She already knows each child by name and on this day casually pops into classrooms to ask who’d like to be part of a photo-op. All hands shoot up.

“Golden Hills is a gem of a school. I moved across country to come here,” said O’Donnell of the fully accredited, non-profit, independent school that celebrates its 20th year open.

O’Donnell grew up in Boston and has a long career in education, first as a teacher and then as an administrator and school leader. “Education has been my life ever since my first teaching job as a swim instructor at fifteen,” she said.

O’Donnell earned a BA in Elementary and Special Education (magna cum laude) from Boston College, and holds a MS in Education from Fitchburg State College and a MA in Educational Leadership and Administration from Columbia. Her thesis focused on the value of education in different kinds of schools. Her administration career includes tenures as Lower School Head and Assistant Head of School, first at The Palm Beach Day Academy and then at The Out-Of-Door Academy, both in Florida.

O’Donnell said extended family living nearby sweetened the prospects of moving to California last year. She enjoys horses, golf and swimming in her spare time and said the ready availability of all three living in this part of the state is what she likes best about living in El Dorado Hills. “I just don’t have time,” she laughed.

From the grade level garden beds, called “Learning Gardens,” that were harvested by students last week, to a summer retreat to Nevada City with the whole staff (for which she gave everyone a copy of Carol S. Dweck’s book Mindset), O’Donnell is a passionate believer in continued, lifelong learning and repeatedly said, “Growth is our school’s mantra. No one should ever stop learning.”

As she capitalizes on what she called the good works done in the first 19 years at Golden Hills, O’Donnell explained there are more plans to make the school’s 20th year and beyond even better. “Golden Hills is moving into the future,” she said of sustainability, going green, moving to a block schedule for middle schoolers and an increased focus on 21st century skills, just to name a few. “We often talk as a team about what we need to do to stay current,” she said. “Kids today are wired differently because of technology.”

On her first day as head of school O’Donnell asked the whole GHS community to help rewrite the school’s mission statement. “The kids have a hand in everything,” she said. “Parents, teachers and students all had a voice.”  Today the statement reads: “Golden Hills School is a close, diverse community dedicated to inspiring a love of learning and empowering each child to achieve his or her personal best. We provide an enriched educational environment that fosters a culture of integrity, respect and service to others. With high standards in academics and character development, we prepare students to be confident and successful global citizens.”

Their school brochure states: “Strong academics, athletics, fine arts, character development, and community involvement are the foundations of an education at GHS.”

GHS is an independent school, of which there are only 1,500 in the world. This distinction means they have an independent Board of Trustees. O’Donnell said they are looking to fill one more seat on their Board and are looking for someone with ties to the community. GHS is one of five independent schools in the region, including Country Day School in Sacramento and St. Michael in Carmichael. Reaching out and forming a consortium with the other independent schools has  been high on O’Donnell’s priority list.

Jim Gaines is part of the school’s administrative team and said he took the job even more recently than O’Donnell because he was so impressed by her leadership. “During my interview it was clear she was already well into a critical analysis of the school,” he said. “More inspiring was she wanted to start first with taking a close look at the mission statement.”

Golden Hills School is located at 1060 Suncast Lane in El Dorado Hills. For more information call 933-0100 or visit


Julie Samrick


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