Sparta native recently named School Social Worker of the Year
Sparta native, Nichole Carlisle, was recently named the School Social Worker of the Year by the Wisconsin School Social Work Association. When she received the news, she said she felt honored and appreciated for all of her years of hard work.
Carlisle was born in La Crosse and lived in Sparta until she was 10 years old when she moved to Sun Prairie for a short time before moving back to Sparta where she graduated from Sparta High School in 2003.
Carlisle attended college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where in 2007 she obtained a BA in social welfare with Honors. She later earned a master’s degree in social work with a concentration in children, youth and families in 2012.
“I always knew I wanted to do something that would allow me to help people and throughout my life I wanted to be a teacher because I always loved my teachers,” Carlisle said, adding that she also considered becoming a psychologist or working with individuals who were incarcerated. “I stumbled on social work in one of my psychology classes. After that I knew it was something I wanted to do.”
A friend recommended she consider working with children, which is what she has been doing ever since. When she finished college, Carlisle’s first job was in a group home for young boys who had been adjudicated delinquent and removed from their homes to live in the group home.
“It was a great place to learn the basics of healing connection and hearing people’s stories and how restorative that process can be just to hear from people why they ended up where they did,” she said. “When I would hear these kids’ stories, it made sense that they struggled in the ways that they did.”
Working with young adults who followed what some might consider the wrong path has been beneficial to Carlisle now in her efforts to try and keep kids on the right path.
Carlisle has been working as a school social worker for the past seven years. She is currently the school social worker at Kromrey Middle School in Middleton where she helps students find some connection to their school in order to be successful.
“I’ve had a few of my kiddos end up in JRC (Juvenile Reception Centers) in Madison, but luckily that’s been few and far between of my students that have ended up there,” she said. “All of the kiddos I worked with in the group home, without exception, really had no connections to their school and no one they felt had their back or was advocating for them. My thought is if I can catch them upstream, they won’t end up in places like a group home.”
Growing up, Carlisle says she didn’t have the best home life, but she always felt that school was a safe place for her, which she says it should be for all kids.
“There is very little that a student can say that will shock me or catch me off guard. It helps me to sit with the student and what they’re dealing with and not come with my own preconceived notions or judgements because that’s not helpful,” “I think as adults, we do that a lot to kids, which is unfortunate because kids can’t really change the situation that they’re in.”
She tells the students she works with that they may not be able to control the situation they’re in, but they can control how they react to it and how they can better take care of themselves. She focuses on what’s in the sphere of their control, which as middle schoolers is very little.
Historically, a school counselor’s role has always been more focused on academics and preparation for post-secondary education. Those roles are shifting more and more as the mental health needs of students continue to grow.
Carlisle’s role as a school social worker overlaps with that of a school counselor in teaching skills to manage anxiety, depression, self-esteem issues and suicidality to name a few. Her role is unique because she works as a sort of liaison between the school, families and community resources.
As a school social worker, Carlisle also connects families with resources to help with homelessness, food insecurities, mental health support and transportation. “I deal a lot with meeting the basic needs of the family,” she added.
Carlisle feels that her role is so important in schools today as it brings a unique perspective and skill set to the table. “I think especially as we see an alarming increase of mental health in our students,” she added. “Anxiety is an epidemic for our youth and I think it’s really important, especially in rural areas, where there is a lack of professionals, to have people inside the schools that can support kids and families as they deal with these issues is critical to what we are doing in education right now.”
Last year, Carlisle was one of five finalists in the state for Social Worker of the Year. This year, she was nominated for the award by 10 of her coworkers at Kromrey, who cited her work around restorative justice, her ability to build a rapport with marginalized students and to allow others to feel vulnerable around her.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever had the sensation of being so fully overwhelmed with gratitude,” Carlisle said. “I think that this is a particularly pertinent year to be recognized for efforts because it’s a difficult time to be in education; it’s been a challenging year.”
She added that the news of her award couldn’t have come at a better time. She felt rejuvenated and it reminds her that the work she does has an impact and people value what she’s bringing to the table for the kids and families she works with.
“This is a value-based profession and I think the professional values really speak to me on a personal level. It’s definitely a challenging career,” Carlisle said. “A lot of the work we do is highly confidential and it’s work that we can’t always share with people, so while it’s very rewarding on a personal level, the public recognition is a very new thing and it feels good.”