University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Learning About Learning

Blanche Podhajski
Blanche Podhajski G’69


Learning About Learning

by Kathleen Laramee ’00

“I’ve always loved language,” says Blanche Podhajski G’69, director of the Stern Center for Language and Learning. Tracing back to college days, she’s been deeply intrigued by the scientific correlation between language and the brain. After earning her bachelor’s degree at Boston University, Podhajski was offered a fellowship in UVM’s master’s program in speech pathology. “It gave you an opportunity to work in the hospital and to work in schools, so for me it was a no-brainer,” she says.

But she recalls that the road trip up to UVM with her mother did give her pause. “We were driving up before the interstate was even completed, and I’m saying, ‘I am never going to make it through two years here. There’s nothing but cows!’” she says, then adds, “Six months later you wouldn’t be able to yank me out of here with a crane!” 

So began a long love affair with Vermont. Podhajski spent seven years after graduation working as director of the Center for Disorders and Communication at the Medical Center Hospital of Vermont. In 1971, she was also appointed as clinical associate professor of neurology (a position she occupies still), by Dr. Charles Poser whom she credits as one of her many mentors. 

Podhajski left Vermont briefly for Northwestern University and the opportunity to enhance her clinical acumen with a doctorate in learning disabilities, but returned. Back in the Green Mountain State, she co-authored a proposal with the Department of Neurology to launch a center for language and cerebral function at the hospital. “It was 98 percent a go and then cost containment came through the legislature and they froze all new programs, so we had no place to bring it,” she recalls. Fortuitously, colleague and personal friend, Elizabeth Wallman introduced Podhajski to Dr. Peter Stern, a local anesthesiologist whose family managed its own charitable foundation. With Stern’s backing, Podhajski traveled to Manhattan to make her pitch to the foundation and came back with a $50,000 grant to found the Stern Center. “I always credit Dr. Stern as our godfather and Mrs. Wallman as the wind beneath our wings,” she still reflects fondly.    

Thirty years later, the Stern Center employs sixty staff members between two locations in Williston, Vermont, and West Lebanon, New Hampshire, and serves more than one thousand children and adult students each year. Podhajski describes the center as a non-profit resource where students, parents and teachers learn about learning. Its motto—“Because All Great Minds Don’t Think Alike”—is embodied by the diversity of students the center serves including those with learning disabilities, dyslexia, language disorders, autism, attention deficit disorders, and learning style differences.

Podhajski herself is particularly motivated by the science behind learning differences. “There’s a wealth of evidence that shows us not only how to teach children how to read, but that we can actually change brain behavior. It’s amazing,” she says. In the 1990s, researchers at Yale discovered the neural signature for dyslexia—that is, where it is actually located in the brain. Using MRIs, scientists were able to show that struggling readers activate the posterior regions of the brain, whereas readers who didn’t struggle activated the anterior regions of the brain. “So, a dyslexic child who has this neurologic difference,” Podhajksi explains, “with appropriate instruction, can actually shift that brain activity so that he can become a more efficient reader. I don’t know if it gets more powerful than that.”

Since its inception in 1983, Stern has helped more than twenty thousand students realize their potential, and through the center’s successful outreach programs like Building Blocks for Literacy, that number is exponentially higher. Developed and launched by Stern Center staff in 1997, Building Blocks focuses on phonological awareness, shared book reading, vocabulary, alphabet knowledge, and early writing.  The program was so successful in Vermont it is now offered online for early childhood educators to access nationwide. There is also a grant in place to support the program’s expansion through partnerships with JumpStart and Head Start with the goal of reaching all 19.5 million pre-schoolers in the United States.

These days, most of Blanche Podhajski’s time is spent on administrative operations, but she still consults and admits that her staff can’t keep her out of evaluation meetings. “I have a 20/20 vision for the year 2020,” she says. “I want to make sure that in the next thirty years, we train enough physicians, teachers, and parents, that we put ourselves out of business.” A lofty goal perhaps, but for the woman whose founding vision thirty years ago has grown into an internationally recognized resource for language and literacy, it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch.

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