The Language of Learning

Blanche Podhajski of the Stern Center helps people who learn differently learn better

by Craig Bailey

Photos: Jeff Clarke

According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, approximately 10 million children across the country have trouble learning to read. Ten to 15 percent of those children will drop out of high school; only 2 percent can be expected to make it through a four-year college.

The effects of those statistics on this country's economy and the quality of life of its populace are significant. For Blanche Podhajski, the issue is more personal. "If you've ever seen a 9-year-old in a classroom who's not reading, it's poignant," she says. "It's painful to see the frustration." Podhajski has spent her career working with people who have learning disabilities, and studying the connection between language and reading.

For 16 years, Podhajski has been president of the Stern Center for Language and Learning. She founded the non-profit organization in 1983 as a natural extension of her private practice in Burlington where she diagnosed people with learning disabilities.

"We have a threefold mission," she says of the center. "We're a direct-service organization to provide evaluation and instruction to anybody who learns differently. That includes the gifted, people with learning disabilities, people who have attention problems -- the whole gamut."

More than 600 students from as far away as Philadelphia come through the Stern Center each year to attend one-on-one or group sessions with the approximately 30 employees. Sessions are held during fall and summer semesters and include reading, spelling, writing, math, study skills and more. Weekly, individual instruction costs $1,785 during the school year; or $660 for the summer session. Most students are school-aged; 10 percent are adult learners.

Blanche Podhajski

The Stern Center for Language and Learning in Williston works with students with learning disabilities and trains teachers. The non-profit organization was founded by Blanche Podhajski in 1983.

"Then we have a strand which is a professional development strand," Podhajski continues, "to provide teachers, medical students, and community leaders with information about literacy and language and learning issues.

"And we have a research component, which will hopefully give back what we learned in Vermont to the national data bank about how people learn."

Podhajski says, "We consider ourselves a unique kind of organization, because we bridge medicine and education. Our goal is to improve our students' performance in what would be considered traditionally academic areas, but we're always looking at the brain behavior relationships underlying them." It was that blend of medicine and education that attracted her to the field of learning disabilities.

A native of New Britain, Conn., Podhajski (pronounced pud-hi'-skee) graduated from Boston University in 1967 with a bachelor of science in speech and hearing. "I was interested in medicine and I was interested in education; I didn't want to be a doctor and I didn't want to be a teacher," she muses. Studying speech and hearing seemed a way to blend the two.

Podhajski's education was steeped in what history would mark as a paradigm shift in the way researchers regarded learning. The term "learning disability" was coined in 1963 and the first book on the subject was written in '67. It has only been during the last decade that professionals like Podhajski have acquired biological proof that some brains learn differently than others. "We now can actually watch what the brain does during the act of reading" using magnetic resonance imaging of the brain, she explains. "We know that good readers activate the neural circuitry on the posterior part of the brain -- the back of the brain -- that poor readers under-activate that part.

"In the years to come we're almost going to be able to appreciate response to instruction just by looking at brain behavior. That's amazing," she continues. "It's really given credibility to this disorder that has really caused such a struggle for so many people."

Podhajski's education continued with a fellowship at the University of Vermont for a master's program in speech pathology, which included a clinical internship at the Center for Disorders and Communication at the Medical Center Hospital of Vermont. "A year later you couldn't yank me out of Vermont with a crane," recalls Podhajski. So she applied for a job at the center and in 1968 started as a speech and language pathologist working with preschoolers. "I loved it," she enthuses. "It's like a puzzle: Why are these children having such problems? What can the data tell us and then how can this data lead to an instruction prescription?"

In 1969 she earned her master's degree in speech pathology. In 1971 she began directing the Center for Disorders and Communication and accepted an appointment with the department of neurology through the advocacy of department chair Charles Poser. (She remains an associate clinical professor of neurology at UVM.)

Seven years later she ran headlong into a harsh reality of academia. After applying for a grant, Podhajski received a site visit from a man who said he loved her proposal, except for one thing: "Without a union card, it's going to be really hard to get it funded in Washington." It didn't take Podhajski long to determine the "union card" to which the man was referring was a Ph.D.

Phunky Phonics

Most reading difficulties can be traced to an inability to translate chunks of sound, called phonemes, into letters on the page, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Part of the challenge is that English uses 26 letters, but has 44 phonemes. The odd ratio confuses some learners. "Church," for example, has six letters, but only three phonemes: Ch-er-ch. Most learners have no problem recognizing sounds and mastering which letters and combinations represent each phoneme, but 20 percent need special help. Techniques such as clapping along with each phoneme as it's spoken can teach students to recognize individual sounds -- build so-called "phonological awareness."

The next step is to match letters and combinations to each sound. Research shows this "phonic" instruction is most effective when combined with "whole language" methods that favor literature above individual sounds.
-- cb

Suspecting this type of problem might play into her career again and again, in 1978 she took a fellowship at Northwestern University outside Chicago. "That was really hard, because I loved Vermont so and I loved my job." She earned a doctor of philosophy in learning disabilities in 1980 and worked as a faculty member there for a year. "It was a wonderful experience, but I just missed Vermont so badly," she says. "I couldn't stand it, so I came back."


"When people can't get jobs, when people become depressed because they aren't learning, that becomes a health problem," according to Blanche Podhajski. Also pictured: (back) CFO John Connell, development director Mary Stifler, (front) director of diagnostic services Mary Wright.

In 1981 she set up a private practice at Aesculapius Medical Center in South Burlington. She loved working with clients to determine the nature of their learning difficulties, but was unhappy that her small practice didn't have the capacity to take the next step and educate clients to overcome their disabilities. "It was very frustrating," she laments. "I really wanted a place in Vermont where youngsters and teachers could come," she says. "It could be a think tank about learning problems."

Her 1983 proposal for such a center was turned down by the Medical Center. "They wanted to incorporate it there, but it was at a time when cost containment came through the Legislature and new programs were frozen," Podhajski says. "So that's when I applied to the Stern Foundation."

Podhajski had been introduced to Peter Stern, an anesthesiologist in Burlington, through colleagues Lester and Elizabeth Wallman. Stern is the son of Milton and Bernice Stern, Manhattanites who maintained a second home in Stowe, and operated a charitable, family foundation. (Milton died in 1989; Bernice remains active with the foundation and the Stern Center, chairing its honorary board.) In 1983 Podhajski made the trip to New York, presented her case, and walked away with a $50,000 grant to found the Stern Center.

Podhajski started the center on East Avenue in Burlington with office manager Barbara Forsyth and researcher Reid Lyon. Shortly after, Sarah Gray was hired to head the instructional program. By '84 she started hiring teachers to provide instruction, and moved the center to Winooski in 1986. In December 1994, the center moved into an 8,000-square-foot building it constructed at 135 Allen Brook Lane, Williston, following a $1 million capital campaign. The organization also uses 1,000 square feet of space in the annex across the parking lot and maintains a 1,200-square-foot satellite office in White River Junction. Staff members travel throughout Vermont and occasionally out of state to provide professional development services to educators.


TIME for Teachers, a program that teaches how language works, has been offered by the Stern Center throughout Vermont and in New York and Connecticut. Pictured: executive assistant Gail Babinger with Blanche Podhajski.

The center's annual operating budget has grown to $1.7 million. Seventy-five percent of that comes from schools and parents who employ the center's services; the remainder comes from grants and gifts. The $360,000 Smallwood Family Scholarship Endowment Fund goes toward scholarships. Last year the center awarded $54,000 to nearly 100 students.

The Sterns were the first of many people Podhajski has encountered who have donated time, expertise and dollars to help build the Stern Center. "Unusually kind, giving people," are the words Podhajski uses to describe the couple. She extends similar kudos to her 17-member volunteer board.

Barry Stone of the Barry Stone Agency in South Burlington recently became chair of the Stern Center board. A family friend of the Sterns since the '50s who was recruited to join the board three years ago, he says, "When I met Blanche, that clinched the deal.

"I have been involved in a number of organizations," he says. "Blanche is the most outstanding non-profit leader I've been exposed to. She relates very, very well to people of all levels: children, business people, educators. No matter what kind of a situation she's placed in she really shines."

It's Wednesday morning, Sept. 1, an appropriate day for Podhajski to reflect on her accomplishments: The date marks the 16th anniversary of the Stern Center's inception. It's near the end of the two-week period between the center's semesters, so the waiting area and hallways that feel more like a doctor's office than an educational center are mostly quiet. The series of small test/teach rooms and adjacent one-way observation rooms where parents and teachers can watch the proceedings without affecting them are empty.

Though most of her time is spent handling administrative tasks, it's clear Podhajski's true love is working with students; she still makes time to perform a handful of student evaluations each month. The balance of her time is mostly spent fund raising or traveling to make presentations. Whenever possible she entices husband Ken Kreiling, a professor at Vermont Law School, to join her on her trips. Elizabeth, Podhajski's "bonus daughter" from her marriage to Kreiling, just started college out of state. "We're still going through a little separation anxiety," jokes Podhajski. "Today's her first field hockey game."

Pleasant, passionate about her work and unsurprisingly well-spoken, Podhajski shines the spotlight on the center's Training in Instructional Methods of Efficacy (TIME) for Teachers, a project devoted to teaching teachers how language works to improve their skills for teaching reading. "If you think that each teacher probably touches 20 youngsters each year over the course of a 30-year career "that's a lot of people," she says. "Next to founding the Stern Center, it's what I'm really most proud of."

Started in 1995, the program consists of a week-long, 35-hour course for teachers, followed by 10 mentoring visits from Stern Center staff at participating teachers' schools over the next school year. Funded by a grant from the Freeman Foundation in Stowe, the program is offered free. "We now have research evidence to show that literacy gains are stronger among children in whose classrooms teachers had the training," says Podhajski.

More than 1,000 kindergarten- through-third-grade teachers have taken the course, which has been expanded to include fourth- through sixth-grade instructors as well. Building Blocks, a spin-off project aimed at preschool professionals, is in its third year, and the Schwab Foundation for Learning has invited the Stern Center to present the TIME project in San Jose, Calif.

"We really pride ourselves on partnership with the schools; we're not in competition with schools," Podhajski continues. She thinks public education is an easy target, "but what encourages me is I think our criticism is becoming more constructive.

"Schools can't do it alone," she says. "It may not take an entire village, but it takes a lot of business input; it takes money; it takes community support; and it takes parent involvement to really make our public schools as strong as they should be."

If the decor of Podhajski's office is any indication, the center's on the right track. She points to a photo of a former Stern Center student decked out in cap and gown at his college graduation. His smile could light up the room.