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.”