A Conversation with Hillsdale College: “We’re Changing the Face of American Public Education”

Philanthropy Roundtable’s Free to Give campaign elevates the voices of everyday Americans who have dedicated their careers to supporting those in need. Their work is made possible by the freedom of all Americans to give to the causes and communities they care about most. 

Ahead of National School Choice Week, the Roundtable spoke with Kathleen O’Toole, assistant provost for K-12 education at Hillsdale College, about the institution’s K-12 Education Office. The office works with K-12 schools, parents and teachers to found and support a nationwide network of classical schools and revive the American tradition of K-12 education. Hillsdale also offers free resources for parents and teachers that focus on the liberal arts and sciences and teaching principles of moral character and civic virtue. In this conversation, O’Toole discusses the role of philanthropic donors in funding Hillsdale’s critical work and explains why philanthropic freedom and donor intent are integral to this mission. 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.  

Q: Tell us about Hillsdale College, its unique K-12 department and the mission behind the institution. 

O’Toole: Founded in 1844, Hillsdale College was created with an extraordinary mission, which we have strived to remain faithful to ever since. An important part of that mission is to teach all who wish to learn. My role as the assistant provost for K-12 education is to lead the College’s K-12 Education Office, which educates people from coast to coast about tried and true K-12 education. We work with teachers, parents, and school administrators to recover the principles of excellent curriculum and instruction that our schools and students deserve.  

We believe America has a tradition of excellence in K-12 education—but we also know that our country is in danger of forgetting what it takes to run a school, what children should be learning and what it means to be a teacher. The work my office is doing is bringing the mission of Hillsdale College to K-12 educators, school founders and parents across the country.  

Q: Why does philanthropic freedom matter to your institution? 

O’Toole: There are so many phenomenal charities and organizations out there doing amazing work in their communities, and it’s always worrisome when folks want to limit the options available to charitable donors to support the work of nonprofit organizations and institutions. The people who have the generosity in their hearts to support our work should have the right and the opportunity to do so—and to remain anonymous in their charitable giving if they wish. When a donor chooses to give, they’re not just giving dollars, they’re saying something about themselves and their beliefs. It’s vital to us that donors can give how, when and to whom they choose as an extension of their values and legacy.  

Q: What sets Hillsdale apart from other institutions?  

O’Toole: The work of our affiliated schools, and the robust support that Hillsdale College provides to them, are simply unmatched with any other institution in the country. Not only do we have a nationwide reach, but we also provide the comprehensive training that school founders, board members and teachers need to do right by K-12 students. 

We offer a program called the Barney Charter School Initiative which helps charter schools get established by providing the classical curriculum, and comprehensive training for teachers, principals and board members. We launched this initiative in 2010 and it has yielded dozens of schools across the country and has helped tens of thousands of students. 

We also founded the Hoogland Center for Teacher Excellence in 2000. Through the Hoogland Center, we expand the reach of the College’s curriculum and teacher training to a nationwide audience. With this center, we host training and educational conferences at Hillsdale and also take these trainings on the road to provide free professional development for any teacher in America, whether they are working in public, private or charter schools. This last year we’ve hosted Hoogland Center events on teaching mathematics, the sciences, children’s literature and American history, and they’ve been so popular we’ve had to create a waiting list for each event.  

Q: Can you discuss your American history and civics curriculum? 

O’Toole: Hillsdale’s American history and civics curriculum is a complete collection of lesson plans for teaching American history, civics and government to K-12 students. Last month, we released our final unit on recent American history, completing the sequence. The curriculum builds on itself, so as students move through it in their K-12 years, they will, for example, learn about American history from the colonies through the Civil War four different times. Each time they encounter these units, the lessons increase in depth. This curriculum is intended to be a resource for teachers, providing guidance on planning and teaching any given topic in American history, civics or government-related courses. To help teachers prepare their lessons, we suggest textbooks, online courses, content topics and stories that provide insight into the events and background of each era.  

The curriculum contains questions to ask the students, clarifies important points for teachers to keep in mind and includes student-ready primary sources along with sample assignments, activities and assessments. To ensure our students are learning the most important topics in the best possible way, we thoroughly vet every resource and recommendation. It’s our opinion that the best way to learn from history is to balance our thinking of the past and search for the truth in primary source documents, a stance reflected in the curriculum itself.  

Of our initial release, David Randall said “Hillsdale College’s 1776 Curriculum provides lesson plans aimed for intelligent, curious twelfth-grade students, and that no other institution provides curriculum anywhere near Hillsdale’s level.” Though we are excited to offer a complete series for both American history and civics, this remains an ongoing and transparent project which we consistently work to improve for our teachers and students. 

Q: What type of impact has your K-12 programming had on students? 

O’Toole: We’re changing the face of American public education. We’re helping recover the excellence that was once there in our public system. It’s our goal that one day many hundreds of thousands of students will have access to this tried-and-true curriculum and quality instruction. We want to set students up to be better educated, to be ready to pursue a better life and to serve this country of ours, with greater opportunities than have been afforded to previous generations.  

Q: In which ways are donors able to support your efforts, and how can people get more involved with your work? 

O’Toole: Because Hillsdale doesn’t accept any federal funding, all of our work is made possible by our many hundreds of thousands of friends who have entrusted us with their generosity. As a result of that, we care deeply about donor intent, and honoring the wishes of our donors by using their gifts where they have asked us to use them. Whether our donors give to our general fund, the K-12 Education Office’s endowment or the Hoogland Center, it is paramount to us to be faithful to their intent and to honor their legacy by doing so. We recognize that while we do not solicit a single penny, people have a desire to give, and we are moved by that generosity.  

To know that the work we are doing means so much to people that they’re willing to give their hard-earned dollars to support us is uplifting and extremely encouraging. And for those who want to get more involved, they can give on our website at https://secured.hillsdale.edu/hillsdale/charter-schools/. There are numerous ways to get more involved with us, whether you’re a potential teacher, school leader or if you’re interested in bringing a Hillsdale classical school to your community. We encourage you to visit k12.hillsdale.edu to learn more. 

View more stories about the importance of philanthropic freedom at FreeToGive.org. 

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