For over 30 years, Kathy Funke has been helping Gainesville students to succeed in school.
Funke, a licensed school psychologist, tests and advocates for special education students, including those looking to get tested for gifted programs, those with attention and learning disabilities and those with Asperger’s syndrome. She works with all ages, from children just starting elementary school to students at the University of Florida.
Funke estimates she has worked with hundreds of children, and for many in the Gainesville community, she provided an ear and a helping hand when no one else would listen.
“Usually people come to me because they don’t feel like they’re being heard in the school system,” she said. “They have tried to get services, either through the guidance department or through the teachers themselves, and haven’t been successful.”
College students also come looking for help from Funke when they are facing living and learning on their own for the first time.
“I do see some college students as well because they’ve started to have some difficulties at the post-secondary level,” she said. “Their parents provided support for them or they were in a private school setting and got accommodations as they needed it. As they transferred to a more independent learning situation, that’s where a number of people have difficulties.”
Funke started out her career while working for the state of Florida in child welfare services. She worked with a number of foster children who were receiving special education attention and decided to pursue higher learning.
After completing her master’s in school psychology, Funke worked at UF Health Shands Hospital for 13 years doing testing for at-risk and premature infants. In the meantime, she was completing her doctorate at UF.
After finishing her education, Funke started her own practice, which was founded on the belief of providing complete support and information to both the parent and the child or young adult with whom she is working.
To test students for gifted programs or for learning or attention disabilities, she uses a formula.
“I ask them very specific questions about what happens to them during reading, writing, copying, note taking, mathematics, homework, tests and sleep,” she said. “Based on those things, I get a pretty clear picture of what parts are working and what parts aren’t, and then I use my testing to support my initial hypothesis.”
For parents like Heidi Hodges Stein, this system has worked well.
Stein visited Funke when her daughter, Lucy, was in first grade. Lucy was very smart but was having trouble learning how to read. After running her tests, Funke diagnosed Lucy as a gifted student with dyslexia.
“Having a gifted child with a learning disability is incredibly challenging,” Stein said. “Kathy helped by coming to meetings with us at my child’s school to help set up a plan and to help advocate for her so the school could meet her unique needs. She also helped connect us with occupational and reading therapy.”
Layla Ruffino had a similar experience with Funke when she had her son, Ari, tested for a gifted program.
“I was trying to get him into a middle school magnet program because he was zoned for a pretty poor school, and I knew that he was highly intelligent so I wanted to get him tested,” Ruffino said.
Months later, the family worked with Funke again when Ari was tested for Attention Deficit Disorder.
“[Funke] was lovely and warm and made it really easy on him,” Ruffino said. “She was definitely a good advocate for him when were trying to get him into a magnet program; she really helped me through the channels in the school.”
For Funke, the importance of her job is helping those students who may be overlooked in the classroom.
“At this point, our educational system believes that most people should just receive services within the classroom, so there’s a push for mainstream education,” Funke said. “For many students, that is appropriate, but for some students they may need more specialized instruction… particularly those students who are having difficulty just learning how to read.”
Funke said there are misconceptions surrounding learning disabilities, like how students she works with have often been told they are simply lazy or not smart.
“They come to me with these misperceptions about themselves, and so if I could change something, it would be that tone of how we interpret students struggling,” she said.