Q&A with Kathleen M. Prager '78C, '81GEd, Heritage Circle Inductee

Q&A with Kathleen M. Prager ’78C, ’81GEd, Induction into the Heritage Circle Award Recipient
October 25, 2023

St. John’s University’s annual Alumni Convocation ceremony, held on the Queens, NY, campus on October 21, recognized nine graduates for their personal and professional accomplishments. Among the honorees was Kathleen M. Prager ’78C, ’81GEd, Multisensory Language Therapist, Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators.

Tell us about yourself and your affiliation with St. John’s University, particularly The School of Education.

I am a lifelong resident of Astoria, NY. I graduated from Mater Christi High School (now St. John’s Prep) in Astoria. I am one of nine kids. My brother John is a Vincentian priest in Panama, and my brother Ed is an adjunct professor of theology. I attended St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and earned my B.A. in English Literature and M.S. in English and Secondary Education. I played women’s varsity tennis and was a Kappa Phi Beta Sorority, Pan Hellenic Council member.

How has St. John’s impacted your career path? 

I loved St. John’s and received superb academic training—but also critical moral and spiritual training. The Vincentian Priests & Brothers and Daughters of Charity were very present to us in class, but also in our extracurricular activities and on an everyday basis. I was on the Women’s Tennis team, and we had Rev. Robert J. Rivard, C.M., as the athletic moderator. Our moderator in Kappa Phi Beta Sorority was Rev. Joseph Daly, C.M., an administrator. Sr. Maura Hobart, D.C., engaged us in retreats. They invited us to participate in various projects beyond our sport or club, but most importantly, they took the time to teach us how to design and implement service projects. We organized weekend dance marathons and ran Circle Line boat rides for charity.

They were mentors and formators who clearly understood what made a St. John’s education. They taught us the simple but great Vincentian question, “What must be done ?” St. Vincent’s method is to observe, ask what must be done, reflect, plan, and act. They taught me how to find the resources and the right people to help achieve sustainable goals. They introduced us to people. Looking back, I see they were really teaching us the rudiments of all systemic change, of which St. Vincent de Paul was a master and probably the creator.

St. John’s taught me my academic skills; although my parents raised me to help others, St. John’s lit the fire and helped me figure out the steps to really help others long-term by supporting me through trips and projects. Through mentors, we were also taught how to walk with the king and the pauper. Everyone had a part to play. Everyone had a seat. That is some of the humility that is part of the Vincentian charism.

How will you use this award to impact the lives of others following in your footsteps?

I love the Vincentian mission and their grasp of how to bring about long-term sustainable change. They are heroes, and our faculty and students should know of the projects of the Vincentian Family. I know the new tagline is Education That Elevates. That is the fundamental mission of St. John’s. That was the mission of St. Vincent de Paul; he used his resources and realized that he needed to mitigate the suffering of the poor and make their lives better. He elevated them.

If you could do one thing, leave one mark on the teaching profession (in the business world or academia), what would it be?

The greatest academic challenge facing education is the teaching of reading and writing. Talk about a social justice issue! Literacy is a human right. It is the basis of all learning. The move from orality to literacy changes brain structure; it is the foundation for analytical thinking for communicating within and across communities. Based on the jazziest media page, a car engine’s operation is executed via a written code. Literacy is the foundation for a good and happy life in the modern world. 

Sadly, we as a society do not do it well and do not have a solid grasp of basic language development. Knowledge of language acquisition is required if one is to offer state-of-the-art language instruction. Districts give a reading or writing program, but that is the what, not the why. There is a need for an eclectic approach to meet a teacher’s myriad of needs, and teachers need to know where to send parents and children when a child is struggling or is not learning via the traditional approach. It is estimated that approximately 15-20% of the general population has a learning disability, that is 1 in 5 kids. Research from the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity indicates that 90% of people with learning have dyslexia. School systems need to diagnose and provide the proper treatment.    

Can you speak to a teacher/mentor who impacted or set you on your current path?

I had many mentors, including:

  • Jerrold Ross, Ph.D., Dean of The School of Education from 1995 to 2014. He had a love for the children of New York City and a desire to bring the best to them. He was always very busy but had an open-door policy, was a great listener, and was always eager to help. He enabled me to implement several programs. 
  • Rev. John Freund, C.M., A dear friend and great educator, and a visionary who, back in the early 1990s, opened the world of technology to me. He introduced me to Robert Zenhausern, Ph.D., of the Psychology Department, who led a research project with second language learners. He engaged my ESL students and me in a remarkable three-year coding and Web design journey. They literally brought the internet to my classroom.
  • Sr. Margaret John Kelly, D.C. ’64, ’67Ph.D., Director of the Vincentian Center for Church and Society and the Founder and Spiritual Moderator of the St. John’s University chapter of the Ladies of Charity. She was a champion of social justice on the local, national, and international level. She had such belief and hope in young people and welcomed me and my students for discussions, conferences, and projects to learn about sustainable societal change.
  • Marcelle Thiebaux. A brilliant and challenging English professor for my Senior Seminar who taught me the art of research and refined my writing.

What’s next?

I plan to continue my involvement with St. John’s University Ladies of Charity, an international society founded by St. Vincent de Paul in 1617. I am on the board of directors of Variety Boys & Girls Club of Queens, and we serve youth in western Queens, Astoria, and Long Island City. We are poised to break ground on a state-of-the-art clubhouse and a 220-apartment complex. Our new 120,000-square-foot club facility will be able to quadruple the number of kids we serve.

I am happy to say that over the years it took to bring this project to fruition, members of the St. John’s University faculty and alumni community have served as valued advisers on committees (i.e., Melissa A. Parenti, Ed.D., who taught in The School of Education until 2016; Belenna Lauto ’81C, Professor and Chair, Department of Art and Design, St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; Anna Lukachick ’80Ed; Bill Lauto ’80C; and Robert Sorenson ’74C.)