New dean’s past experiences prepare her for McKay School

Dean Prater takes a break from moving into her new office to get some work done.
Dean Prater takes a break from moving into her new office to get some work done. (Photo by Chris Bunker)

The new dean of BYU’s McKay School of Education paused to think about the previous couple days, then quietly laughed and said, “I’ve survived so far.”

Mary Anne Prater moved into her new corner office on July 1, beginning her five-year term as dean. She admitted that she feels a little overwhelmed by the new position but is excited about the challenge.

“There have been a lot of projects and initiatives that have taken place over the last 10 years under Dean (Richard) Young. He’s been fabulous,” Prater said. “But that just adds to my feeling overwhelmed.”

Prater grew up in Salt Lake City and says that education runs deep in her family. Her mother, who taught nutrition science at the University of Utah and Utah State University, wanted Prater to become a lawyer. Her father, a self-taught businessman from Georgia, wanted her to get her MBA.

“I decided to do my own thing,” Prater said.

Although Prater has made a name for herself through her work and research in special education, she says she certainly didn’t plan her career that way.

“I started out assuming I was going to be a choir teacher, because that was my major,” Prater said. “I never imagined that I would be a faculty member at BYU, let alone the dean. That was the furthest from my mind at the time.”

After being unable to find a job as a choir teacher in the Salt Lake Valley, Prater returned to the University of Utah, working in the advisement center. A year and a half later she decided to go back to school and study special education. Prater then taught for a few years in Jordan School District in Salt Lake City but soon decided to return to school once again and get her Ph.D.

Some of Prater’s latest and best-known research has led her to examine the portrayal of children with disabilities in children’s literature. She began this research while serving as an administrator at the University of Hawaii.

“Given my administrative responsibilities, it was hard to leave the university to visit schools, and I thought, ‘What do I like to do for fun, that I could turn into some research project?'” Prater said. She then explained that she loved reading children’s literature, and this led her to start researching and analyzing these books.

Her research focused on the representation of children with disabilities in children’s literature. After presenting some of her research at a conference at the University of Hawaii, Prater met Tina Dyches, who is now a program coordinator for the Special Education Program in the McKay School.

Together, along with another colleague, Sharon Cramer, Prater and Dyches decided to create an award to recognize and promote children’s literature that involved children with developmental disabilities.

Dyches explained that a lot of previous literature involved children with disabilities only as a catalyst to help other characters learn and grow. Dyches, Prater, and Cramer all wanted to recognize literature that didn’t portray children with disabilities as different.

Prater and her new colleagues followed their plan and proposed the award to the Council for Exceptional Children. In 2000, the Dolly Gray Awards for Children’s Literature recognized its first authors, illustrators and publishers.

“We’ve seen a massive increase in terms of the number of books that are being written and published, and we’re also seeing a lot better quality, where people with developmental disabilities are not looked upon as so different from anyone else,” Dyches said. “It’s really been great to see the transformation of these books over the past decade or so.”

Prater and Dyches have continued work with Prater to research the portrayal of children with disabilities in children’s literature, and, according to Dyches, the two have a number of projects “on the back burner” until they have more time.

“I don’t know how she does it, but she’s always able to continue to research regardless of the administrative position that she’s been in,” Dyches said of her colleague. “But whenever you’re in administration, it just pulls you away.”

Prater left what she called the “aloha spirit” in Hawaii to take a position at BYU in 2001.

“My home was in Salt Lake,” Prater said. “I was ready to come home to family.”

Since then, she has served as the special education program coordinator as well as department chair of the Department of Counseling Psychology and Special Education.

Betty Ashbaker, Prater’s colleague and associate professor in the department, explained in an email that as department chair Prater developed systems that allowed faculty to reduce time spent on “inconsequential matters” and freed up their time for more important work. Ashbaker also explained that Prater is committed to providing support to school districts and developing highly qualified teachers.

“I have no doubt that this theme will continue throughout her leadership of the McKay School of Education,” Ashbaker said.

Prater said her most important focus as dean will be to make sure her students know what teach, know how to teach and become caring individuals who are willing to go the extra mile to helps kids reach their potential.

“The bottom line is the difference it can make with kids out in the schools,” Prater said. “Anything we can do to improve the educational experience for kids is crucial.”

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