Kathleen O’Toole will serve as Hillsdale College’s new assistant provost of K‑12 edu­cation, and will oversee Hillsdale Academy as well as the Barney Charter School Ini­tiative. Kathleen O’Toole | Courtesy

Five years ago, Kathleen O’Toole took the helm of what was then a brand-new Barney Charter School in Texas: Founders Clas­sical Academy of Leander. Having received her doc­toral degree and taught pol­itics for a short time at Morehead State Uni­versity, she agreed to run the school, with more than 400 children enrolling in the first year.

“They just walked in our doors, and we figured out how to have a school,” she said.

This summer, O’Toole will come to Hillsdale to take the position of assistant provost of K‑12 edu­cation, a new admin­is­trative role created for the purpose of pulling together all of Hillsdale’s K‑12 ini­tia­tives, including Hillsdale Academy and the various Barney Charter Schools, under the provost’s office. The Barney Charter School Ini­tiative for­merly fell under the external affairs department.

When O’Toole’s father, Hillsdale College Pres­ident Larry Arnn, created the new position, he said he had not even con­sidered his daughter as a potential can­didate. Instead, he allowed Provost David Whalen and Board Chairman William Brodbeck to take over the hiring process upon their request.

“I confess I had not thought of her as someone to run it, partly because it would be com­pli­cated to hire my daughter, but also because I really hadn’t thought of it — she likes what she’s doing,” Arnn said.

Whalen and Brodbeck had orig­i­nally asked O’Toole to apply for the position of Hillsdale Academy head­master last year, but after inter­viewing her, they decided to have her stay at the Texas school for that year and then later offered her the oppor­tunity to work at the college.

Brodbeck said he found O’Toole well-suited for the position, due to her prior expe­rience at one of the Barney Charter schools.

“Frankly she reminds me of her father,” Brodbeck said. “She’s amaz­ingly intel­ligent and has done an excep­tional job down in Texas at that school.  I’m con­fident she’ll be excep­tional in this position.”

O’Toole’s husband, Daniel O’Toole, who is cur­rently fin­ishing up his doc­torate at the Uni­versity of Texas, is going to work as a Hillsdale College fellow next year, teaching and pos­sibly helping a bit with the college’s clas­sical edu­cation pro­grams, according to O’Toole.

O’Toole earned her bachelor’s degree in pol­itics from the Uni­versity of Dallas and then attended Claremont Graduate Uni­versity for her master’s in political science and doc­torate in American gov­ernment and political phi­losophy. As the daughter of an Aris­totelian scholar, O’Toole even­tually became one herself.

“Some­times she would be impa­tient with me, and she’d say, ‘You should just let me be happy,’” Arnn said. “And I’d say, ‘You’re too young to be happy. You have to learn to be good.’ And that’s what she wrote her doc­toral thesis about.”

O’Toole’s Leander school has expanded to 650 stu­dents since its founding, and she said she’s amazed at the progress it has made in five years. While she’s sad to leave, she believes the tran­sition in lead­ership will be good for the school, as it will show the school is suc­cessful on its own merits.

“When I look at these stu­dents and parents I’ve been working with, it breaks my heart to leave them,” O’Toole said. “But I know it’s the right thing, because the school is stable now, and it doesn’t rest on me the way it used to.”

Hillsdale Academy Head­master David Diener said bringing the K‑12 ini­tia­tives together under O’Toole will allow everyone to work together better and col­lab­orate in places where there is overlap between BCSI and the academy.

“She’s an ener­getic leader who’s com­mitted to clas­sical edu­cation, and I look forward to working with her to further the college’s mission,” Diener said.

Arnn also noted O’Toole’s life-long love of learning.

“She loved school. She always did,” he said. “She was a joyous little girl and good at school. And then she found sub­jects that she loved and pursued them to the highest level.”

Arnn was also the one who sug­gested she run a Barney Charter School. O’Toole describes running a school as learning to balance “things that don’t nec­es­sarily go together” — that is, simul­ta­ne­ously caring for prac­tical oper­a­tions like budget issues and building safety, and also helping cul­tivate an aca­demic culture that focuses on “goodness, truth, and beauty.” She said her new role will allow her to help other schools nav­igate those issues in order to “create some­thing really high and noble but also stable and steady.”

O’Toole noted that many around the country are inter­ested in the college’s charter school mission and that the college wants to assist even those outside its BCSI through cur­riculum guidance and other means of assis­tance.

“It’s amazing how many people come to you and say, ‘Even if I can’t send my kid to your school, can you tell me what to do?’” she said. “People around the country are really craving sub­stantive clas­sical edu­cation, so our mission is to help anyone who wants help, which will include home­school and maybe private school stu­dents as well.”

Arnn sim­i­larly noted the trend.

“We live under a deluge of requests for help,” Arnn said. “The people running the Barney Project have been very suc­cessful, and they’ll hold the same respon­sible roles they’ve had in past, but it will have a more overall direction to it.”

After serving in a demanding and time-con­suming role as a K‑12 head­master, O’Toole said one of the things she looks forward to most is a change of pace among Hillsdale College’s aca­demic com­munity.

“I’m part of an aca­demic com­munity now because I’m working with these teachers and stu­dents,” she said. “It’s fun because you can accom­plish many things very quickly, but I’ve also come to a place where I’m wanting time be more reflective, and I think being at the college will give me time to be more helpful to these schools.”