Hoehl Family donates $1 million to Stern Center

April 3, 2008

By Tim Simard
Observer staff

The Stern Center for Language and Learning received the largest single donation in its history last week. The center announced the Hoehl Family Foundation would give   $1 million to further expand the center's mission of aiding students who have trouble with traditional learning methods.

"I can't thank the Hoehl Family enough for their contribution," said Dr. Blanche Podhajski, founder and president of the center, at the March 27 press conference. "We're really very thrilled to extend the Stern Center boundaries even further."

The new donation will help to lower costs for eligible students, Podhajski said. Much of the money will also offset other operational costs, such as instructional fees and the workshop costs for teachers, she added.

The Stern Center, based in Williston and with a location in White River Junction, is a nonprofit organization that helps students of all ages with literacy and other learning issues. The center works to aid students who don't learn as well through traditional methods of instruction become more successful in their schooling. Students with learning disabilities, including dyslexia and autism, routinely use the Stern Center for help in English, math and with study skills, Podhajski said.

Teachers and educators can get professional development from the center to bring newer and specialized learning techniques into their classrooms, she said.

According to Podhajski, the Hoehl donation will be made over a four-year period. The money will establish the center's new Cynthia K. Hoehl Institute for Excellence, named after the wife of IDX Systems co-founder Robert Hoehl. The Hoehls have donated money to many organizations in the past, including the Committee On Temporary Shelter, also known as COTS, and the Flynn Center in Burlington, as well as donating the money to build the Hoehl Welcome Center at St. Michael's College.

"Without (the Hoehls), Vermont wouldn't be what it is," said Gene Richards, a board member for the Stern Center. "They're real Vermonters. They invest in this state wisely."

A history of good deeds

The Hoehls' son, John, represented the family at the press conference. He said his mother, Cynthia, grew up in Burlington and has worked as an educator all her life. She is currently helping tutor students in Immokalee, Fla., Hoehl said.

"The gift is just the natural progression of the way mom has lived her life," he said.

Podhajski called Cynthia Hoehl a "dear friend," saying that Hoehl had been an educator in many fields for many years.

"She knows how important it is for teachers to be the best at what they do," she said.

More than just generous philanthropists, the Hoehls have a personal connection to the Stern Center — John and Cynthia are board members, and John's son Jack has been a student at the center. John said he noticed Jack having learning problems with reading during the second grade. Jack was falling behind with his grades and started acting out more, Hoehl said.

"Reading was such a problem for him, it was causing problems in behavior," Hoehl said.

Hoehl was already a Stern Center board member when he brought Jack in for help. Jack was set up with an instructor who helped him approach reading in a different way.

Hoehl wasn't sure what techniques the instructors used to improve Jack's reading skills, all he knows is that it worked. His son, now in fifth grade, reads at a high level and it shows in his grades, Hoehl said.

"The center made a huge difference in his whole school experience," he said.

Work at the Stern Center

Helping students does not come cheap. It costs $80 an hour for a student to receive specialized instruction, a cost that will be reduced by 20 percent, thanks to the Hoehl donation, Podhajski said.

The new Institute of Excellence will also establish scholarship programs for students whose families earn less than $125,000 a year, she said. The center already has its own program set up for families with incomes less than $80,000. Podhajski hopes the donation will allow for more accessibility to the center, which annually tutors 900 students.

Hoehl said a lot of what attracted his family to the Stern Center was its commitment to the future, as well as being leaders in research.

"The research explosion in the last 20 years has been very dramatic," Podhajski said. "(Cynthia) found the research we were doing compelling."

Much of the research has focused on brain scans of alternative learners, Podhajski said. Different parts of the brain show activity in students who don't learn in the traditional manner. Studies are just being completed in how to teach those students more effectively, she said.

"It's an exciting time here at the Stern Center and the Hoehls are a huge part of it," Podhajski said.