Former teacher, principal, director of curriculum and instruction becomes fifth leader of 10-school system
By Bill Brewer
Diocese of Knoxville schools will begin the 2019-2020 academic year with a new superintendent and three new principals among its 10 schools.
Dr. Sedonna Prater becomes the diocese’s fifth superintendent with her appointment by Bishop Richard F. Stika in April.
While new to the position, Dr. Prater is no stranger to diocesan schools, having served more than half her 22-year career in Catholic school education.
She taught seventh and eighth grades at Sacred Heart Cathedral School and then was assistant principal for five years before serving as principal there from 2004 to 2013. For the past six years she has been the diocesan schools’ director of curriculum and instruction, serving under superintendent Sister Mary Marta Abbott, RSM, who stepped down in January for health reasons.
As she begins leading Notre Dame High School, Our Lady of Perpetual Help School, and St. Jude School in Chattanooga; Knoxville Catholic High School, Sacred Heart Cathedral School, and St. Joseph School in Knoxville; St. Mary School in Johnson City; St. Dominic School in Kingsport; St. Mary School in Oak Ridge; and St. John Neumann School in Farragut, Dr. Prater said she looks forward to helping each school tell its unique story.
“I really enjoyed working with Sister Mary Marta. I wasn’t thinking of becoming superintendent at that time or leaving the diocese to find a superintendent position,” Dr. Prater said. “The opportunity of becoming director of curriculum and instruction was exciting and I felt very good serving in that role.”
Dr. Prater was uniquely suited to fill the vacant superintendent position because she was earning her Ph.D. in educational leadership and professional practice, which she received in May from Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville. She earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees in education from the University of Tennessee.
And she said her on-the-job experience in teaching and administration has prepared her for this new role.
“I feel very humbled and grateful for the way God has worked in my life, and these various opportunities to serve have helped prepare me for this role,” Dr. Prater said. “I see myself as a servant leader. I believe that is my calling.”
Her theme shaping the coming year is hope in Christ and her motto is “student-centered, student-focused” because students have always been her primary focus, stemming from her early days as a public school teacher in Middle Tennessee and Lenoir City and continuing through her work in Catholic schools.
“The other guiding practice I’ve tried to follow is transformational leadership. I believe I’m called to serve to bring about change, advancement, and improvement,” she said. “I do see this as a calling and a ministry.”
She wants to continue advancing all 10 schools at the same high level that earned them national accreditation in 2017 by AdvancED, the organization that accredits schools around the United States and the world.
The diocesan schools system educated 3,185 students in pre-K through grade 12 with 392 teachers to conclude the 2017-18 school year, and Dr. Prater considers it part of her mission to continue building on the schools’ successes and advance each one.
“I feel I know all 10 schools very well. I know there is much more to learn, but I’m glad I’ve had the chance to learn the different school communities and their needs,” she said. “My No. 1 goal is promoting our schools and sharing their stories, the unique differences that make them so special.”
Growing enrollment also is a priority.
“A second goal important to me is outreach to all families in the diocese, including our Latino, Vietnamese, and African brothers and sisters to help pull them into our school communities and make them aware of their educational opportunities. I also want to focus on our academic strengths and build on them,” she added.
“If our Catholic schools are going to be truly reflective of our Church, we must have more outreach,” she continued.
In addition to programs to bolster student and family engagement, Dr. Prater plans to begin an internal leadership academy for educators from across the diocese. The regiments program will offer leadership training. She also will be working on faith formation with all faculty members.
She hopes new leaders within the diocesan schools can help solve challenges facing the system, which mirror those facing dioceses across the country.
Enrollment, operational vitality, and technology are among those challenges. She described operational vitality as managing the rising cost of education while ensuring faculty members have just and competitive salaries so teaching staffs can be recruited and maintained.
“There are some solutions out there. The wonderful news is in East Tennessee the number of Catholics is growing. And we are blessed to have such a strong commitment by Bishop Stika and our priests to support our schools,” Dr. Prater said, noting that there are more creative ways of sharing resources and using shared buying power.
“There are ways we can improve operations. We have to function more in a unified manner but still respect the autonomy of each individual school. These unique characteristics are what make each school so special,” she added.
Dr. Prater and her husband, Ron, are members of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. They have three children, daughters Shana Fortenberry and Sienna Prater, and son Saxon, who all went through the diocesan school system.
As the new school year gets underway, Dr. Prater is emphasizing hope in all things education and the importance of developing students’ personal relationships with Christ.
“All of our hope comes from Christ. That virtue is what I’m going with. Hope for our future, our children, and hope that all things are possible through Christ. Hope in Christ brings happiness, optimism, peace, and empathy. These are all qualities we want to imbue and model for our school communities and the students themselves that they learn, experience, and feel,” she said. “There is a lot to do and I want to do a lot, but first we must share our schools’ stories and what a gift our schools are in this diocese.”