By Bill Brewer
It’s back to where it all began for Dr. Sedonna Prater. And that is an answered prayer.
As the 2023-24 academic year starts, Dr. Prater transitions from superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Knoxville to vice president of academics at Knoxville Catholic High School.
And while honored at serving the diocese’s 10 schools for a decade, returning to high school is an opportunity to connect with students and parents “where they are” for the longtime teacher, principal, and diocesan administrator.
Dr. Prater concluded her work as superintendent in July. Earlier this year she announced she was stepping down to return to an in- school setting.
“I have loved what I was doing in serving all 10 Diocese of Knoxville schools. It has been a great honor of my life to work with our Catholic schools at this level,” Dr. Prater said. “First and foremost, I wholeheartedly believe in the mission of Catholic school education. I think that Catholic schools have the best opportunity to serve the whole child, their spiritual formation, and their faith formation, and work with the families and minister to that.”
“I also believe that Catholic schools are one of the great shining stars for evangelization of the Catholic Church, to above all bring children and families to Jesus. I’ve been committed to this. And I have enjoyed at the administrative level serving and working with our schools in that capacity, working with pastors, working with school leaders, working with teachers,” she added.
However, Dr. Prater acknowledged missing the daily interaction with students and teachers that only happens in a school environment.
She said after much prayerful discernment about where Jesus was leading her next, she felt called to return to the school setting where she could again have direct impact on day-to-day teaching and learning with students and their families.
Dr. Prater recalls that she “loved” being a high school teacher before feeling called to go in a different direction early in her career. She then became a middle school teacher at Sacred Heart Cathedral School, where she taught history, English language arts, and foreign language.
“There I was called to serve in an administrative role, and I kept being called to serve in that area,” she said, describing her transition into school administration.
She became assistant principal at Sacred Heart in July 1998 and then served as principal of the cathedral school from July 2004 to June 2013. She became director of curriculum for all 10 diocesan schools in July 2013 and served in that role until she was named superintendent in April 2019.
“Now, this opportunity opened up, and I’ve kind of come full circle, coming back to high school, a place that I love, working with students, and I will still be serving Catholic schools,” she said.
At KCHS, Dr. Prater succeeds Jane Walker, who served the high school for more than 30 years, many of those years as academic dean.
Dr. Prater has worked with Ms. Walker and is an admirer of the former academic dean. “She has done a phenomenal job at Knoxville Catholic High School for years,” Dr. Prater said of Ms. Walker.
While her title and role at KCHS is somewhat different than Ms. Walker’s, Dr. Prater will continue as a lead administrator for academics.
“My role is over teaching and learning, so I’ll be directly involved with the teachers, the students, the academic program. I’m looking forward to being back in the school setting, getting to know the students, getting to know the teachers, and helping them,” Dr. Prater said.
“They (teachers) are on the front line and always have been. The teachers are the backbone of everything that we do. And they are the heart. I’m going to have more direct interaction with them while they are doing what they need to do to serve our students. I’m very excited about it,” she continued.
Dr. Prater’s familiarity with KCHS extends beyond her superintendent position. She was a Fighting Irish parent for several years as her children attended and graduated from the school, which is one of two diocesan high schools.
Dr. Prater’s four-year term as superintendent was marked by the coronavirus pandemic, which hit in early 2020. While the epidemic forced schools—and everything else in the United States —to shut down, Diocese of Knoxville schools were closed only a short time as Dr. Prater and leaders of the 10 schools convened to implement a comprehensive remote-learning program where students could continue attending class from home.
Although the pandemic proved extremely stressful for schools, and students have borne the brunt of the contagion that claimed thousands of lives across the country, Dr. Prater said that period also included major victories in teaching, enrollment, and school finances.
When diocesan schools abruptly shuttered, Dr. Prater said KCHS was the only diocesan school equipped to teach remotely. However, the other nine schools quickly adopted the remote-learning techniques, implemented equipment, and went online.
Diocesan schools lost relatively little learning time compared with public schools, which suspended learning for months. Dr. Prater said it was “miraculous” that Diocese of Knoxville schools could acclimate to remote learning so quickly without losing appreciable learning time.
Diocesan schools became eligible for public funding to support schools impacted by the pandemic. The diocese and its 10 schools applied for and received Emergency Assistance for Nonpublic Schools (EANS) money as well as Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER) grants created to sustain public, private, and parochial schools during COVID-19.
“This is money the federal government provided during the pandemic for learning loss and to help schools get ready for remote learning. It involved technology, infrastructure, and all of that,” Dr. Prater noted. “Our schools have benefited greatly from it. And our parishes have benefited greatly since schools are a part of that. It involves close to $7 million. The GEER money was over $4 million, and in EANS I we received close to $4 million. EANS II was less, it was about $2 million more. All 10 of our schools applied for EANS funding, and all 10 received it in 2021. The funding had to be used for technology infrastructure, safe environment, and health protocols. Our schools used the money for cleaning services, for school nurses, curriculum programs, and educational platforms.”
She pointed out that funding criteria allowed schools to improve their infrastructure, and at least one school was able to install new heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning equipment, which saved the school’s parish thousands of dollars.
“Our school leaders and faculty, our pastors, everyone mobilized to make sure that we got the infrastructure, the programs, everything. We received those grants. We used that money to build up the infrastructure for technology so we could go remote. We used it to get the computers, and we also used it for nurses and other things we did not have. That was EANS I,” she said.
A second round of government funding, called EANS II, was applied for by the diocese, and seven of the 10 schools received this money. Criteria for this funding round hinged on the number of students who met poverty guidelines and restrictions on school vendors.
Dr. Prater said a number of private and parochial schools across Tennessee did not qualify for EANS II funding, so there was money left over in the funding pool. In 2022, she and other independent school leaders across the state successfully lobbied Tennessee’s governor to shift that left-over EANS money to the GEER grants. Nearly $80 million was left unused in the EANS II funding pool in Tennessee, according to Dr. Prater.
“We convinced them to move the money to the GEER and redistribute that money through GEER grants, which the governor has discretion over,” she said, noting that nine of the diocese’s 10 schools received the next round of GEER grants totaling approximately $4 million.
“There were again designations as to what you could use the money for, but one of the things you could use it for was ventilation systems, which many of our schools did. Our schools that had aging air-conditioning units purchased new air-conditioning units. That fit under the category, and it’s exactly what the public schools did. And that helped the parishes,” she said. “That is significant because of operational vitality, which we’ve heard a lot about. Thanks to this money, parishes didn’t have to expend money for these items,” she noted.
She cited St. Jude School in Chattanooga, which has been in need of a new heating and air-conditioning system. Now the school is able to purchase one with GEER money, which helps St. Jude Parish. And Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga will have money to make needed improvements, too.
“Also, our schools for the 2023-24 academic year are probably going to get grants from the state for school safety. All 10 schools have applied for the school safety grants for improvements that will impact our school buildings,” she added.
She said discussions still are taking place at the state level as to whether private and parochial schools can use the GEER money for school resource officers (SROs), which essentially are police officers in schools. It is hoped the money also can be used for security cameras, new security systems, and improved safety glass that can withstand direct, severe impacts.
“We’ve applied for the school safety grant. The state knows that we intend to participate and that we want SROs. But even if it’s not SROs, we can provide security cameras, a new security system that protects and monitors all facility entrances and exits, it could be new safety glass. These are expenses that will help our schools and parishes to keep our children safe,” she added.
Dr. Prater said that while diocesan schools reacted quickly to the coronavirus pandemic and provided remote learning options to all students, remote learning overall wasn’t good for students.
“It was detrimental to their mental wellbeing, their social wellbeing, and their academic wellbeing. Even in our schools, we have seen an increase across the board in mental health issues. Children are more depressed. They are more anxious. It has affected younger students’ ability to socially interact appropriately. There are great deficits there. We are seeing that, too,” she observed.
The result has been a need for schools to offer more assistance in helping some students catch up. And she believes that assistance likely will continue.
“The cognitive part, the learning loss, our schools have very little learning loss. We did have some. Some students have benefited from additional tutoring and support. I don’t see that going away. That is something we are going to have to continue to do,” she said.
Diocesan schools have added students in recent months, and Dr. Prater cited the pandemic as a key reason students left public schools and transferred to Catholic schools in Chattanooga, Oak Ridge, Farragut, Knoxville, Kings-port, and Johnson City. She said many of these new students have some degree of learning loss.
She pointed to statistics that show it takes a student three years to recover academically from a poor year, whether that year was due to an underperforming teacher, problems at home, or issues at school.
“We had two and a half years of interrupted education. And for our schools, the worst year was not the first year, 2020, or even the second year. It was the 2021-22 academic year. The reason was we were back in school, but we were still having to quarantine; students were catching COVID and having to stay out of school, and we were having to remediate. So, 2021-22 was the hardest year. We had a lot of disruption. This past year we’ve tried to catch up,” she said.
“In the 2022-23 school year, we stopped quarantining. We decided at the beginning of the year that we are treating this illness like we do flu, RSV, and all the other normal childhood illnesses,” she added.
And while state standardized tests reveal that a majority of third-graders in public schools are lagging in reading, Dr. Prater said that isn’t the case in diocesan schools.
“Our students are being assessed,” she said. “Our Catholic school students have done better than the rest of the nation during the pandemic, especially in reading and math.”
A choice of schools
Dr. Prater has for years sought to make school choice available across the state, and for the past decade she has been actively working for universal school choice or an educational savings account program.
And as she left the superintendent position, she saw the partial fruit of her labor as the state of Tennessee approved an educational savings account program for Hamilton County schools, which include Notre Dame High School, St. Jude School, and Our Lady of Perpetual Help School.
She is hopeful—and confident—that in time the state’s school choice program will be adopted statewide, something she believes will be a victory for parents and students.
“In our faith, our Catholic Church, we’re the only Christian church that actually has documents that say parents are the first educators of their children. It is a parent’s responsibility to educate their children. We’re the only church with documents that spell that out. This is a belief tenet that we hold as Catholics, and I am very proud of that,” Dr. Prater said. “I also believe that all children have a right to a good education. As a country, that is what we need to strive for. It is the government’s responsibility to provide avenues for that, to provide funding, to provide help. But it’s the parents’ responsibility to figure out what that looks like for their schools, whether it’s homeschooling, whether it’s faith-based schooling.”
Dr. Prater explained that the program now available to the diocesan schools in Chattanooga is not a voucher program, it is an educational savings account. She noted that Arizona and West Virginia were leaders among states in doing universal school choice.
The Diocese of Knoxville’s new schools superintendent, Mary Ann Deschaine, formerly was superintendent for Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston schools in West Virginia from 2018-23 and superintendent of Catholic schools in the Diocese of Saginaw, Mich., from 2011-18.
Dr. Prater also explained that universal school choice means parents receive a set amount of money that can be used for educational purposes. Funds can be used for school tuition, books, and fees at a private school, or could be used for therapy services in speech, occupational health, or mental health. The funds also can be used for tutoring, or for a micro school that is akin to the Chesterton Academy that is beginning to serve Catholic students in the Knoxville area.
She described micro schools as small education centers that serve a smaller number of students in all grade levels. Micro schools became very popular during the pandemic when parents were looking for options as their children were learning remotely. Micro schools have been popular with homeschool parents, who have joined together to form education co-ops.
Educational savings accounts are managed by the Tennessee Department of Education and the state comptroller, but the parents are in charge of their own, Dr. Prater explained.
She noted that participation in the school choice program means responsibility for the child’s education begins with the parents. Schools taking part in the program do not have to accept a child and do not have to keep a child who is not meeting requirements.
And Tennessee’s school choice program limits the number of students who can attend each school that is taking part. Statewide, only 5 percent of students can now be enrolled in the school-choice program.
Also, she said concerns that participating students will be taking money away from public schools are not necessarily valid. The amount Tennessee is giving each student enrolled in an educational savings account is $8,179 per year. Tuition per student at Tennessee schools involved in universal school choice in many cases exceeds what the state is paying. The state also sets poverty guidelines for families taking part.
Dr. Prater said the average Tennessee expenditure per public school student per year is approximately $16,000, according to 2022 numbers. New York spends the most per public school student per year at $29,877, followed closely by Washington, D.C., Vermont, New Jersey, and Massachusetts—all at more than $20,000 per public school student. She is concerned that Tennessee is well below the average.
She emphasized that the state dollars going to the Tennessee school choice program will not impact Tennessee’s public schools.
“What it will do is provide parents an opportunity to have more control over the educational services their children are getting,” she said.
She also emphasized that the program offers parents an opportunity to transfer their children from poor-performing schools to schools with excellent track records.
“It’s an issue of justice for families. Every child should be given a good education, and that should not be dictated by where they live or by the (economic) means of their parents. It’s the parents’ responsibility to make sure their children receive the best education they can, and the parents should have that right if they want a faith-based opportunity to be able to do that. If they want to homeschool their children, they should be able to do that,” she said.
“I also think that it’s going to create competition and will make all of our schools better. If the onus is now on the parents, they’re going to be like the consumer. They’re going to want to go where their child can get the best services, and where that fits with their values and morals of what they want to see taught. If students need tutoring or other programs to help them, that’s where the government can help families. That’s why I wholeheartedly believe in these educational savings accounts, and I believe that it is something that is needed to advance our students and our families across the nation,” she added.
Dr. Prater pointed out that while academics is a primary reason parents send their children to the schools they choose, safety is another important reason as are self-discipline, school environment and culture—“whether they feel safe and loved,” extracurricular and co-curricular activities, and whether students are more successful in college and their careers.
She believes now that the issue has been decided in the Tennessee legislature, implementation of the educational savings accounts must be done effectively. She is confident the private and parochial schools that participate will be improved and that public schools will not be affected negatively.
“Are we going to get students who may have more diverse learning needs? Possibly. And we will handle those as we handle all students with diverse learning needs. If we are not serving that family, we will tell them,” she said.
Dr. Prater believes “the tide is turning” and that more states will begin offering universal school choice or educational savings accounts.
A silver lining in the dark cloud that was the COVID pandemic was that parents learned they have control and responsibility in choosing how their children are educated, Dr. Prater said.
“We saw those graces. Parents started making choices and began saying, ‘No, I’m not going to wait for this public school to open up. We’re going here or we’re going there.’ We saw this across the nation,” she said.
She explained that Shelby County and Hamilton County schools were chosen for the school choice program because each public school district has under-performing schools. She said it is unlikely that the state program is rolled out in the Tri-Cities because those schools typically perform at a high level. And she noted that efforts were successful in Knox County to keep school choice out.
Another factor lessening the demand is that Knox County schools have a transfer policy where students can switch to another school that offers a curriculum they need or want.
“Do I think it will eventually get to the rest of East Tennessee? I do. I think in time we’re going to see this across the nation. … We’ll just have to see how it unfolds,” she said.