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Raising a Voice for Students in Need

Ellen Higley, a social worker with the Eau Claire Area School District, wants to use the attention she’s received through a recent statewide award to promote her profession. Higley – who serves Lakeshore, Longfellow, Meadowview, and Northwoods elementary schools in Eau Claire – was named School Social Worker of the Year for 2018 by the Wisconsin School Social Work Association. She received the award in October at a regional gathering in St. Louis.

A longtime Chippewa Valley resident, Higley is well known throughout the community for her tireless advocacy for the students and families she works with. She has been a school social worker serving Eau Claire for the past 20 years. Prior to that, Higley worked in social services positions for shelters, treatment centers, and at counseling agencies. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in psychology and comparative studies in religion from UW-Eau Claire, a master of science in social work from UW-Madison, and a master of educational leadership and policy analysis from UW-Madison.

The Wisconsin School Social Work Association may have described Higley best as follows: “School colleagues have noted that Ellen is a strong advocate for social justice. She deeply believes in fairness, giving a voice to the unrepresented, and ensuring that all students are provided with equitable treatment and access to resources. Ellen has both an undefeatable desire and the requisite sustained perseverance and optimism to empower families to make and sustain change to improve the quality of their lives. Colleagues describe her as the most resourceful and persistent person they have ever worked with.”

As a school social worker, Higley wears multiple hats and assists with a wide range of services. Higley said her job duties include all of the following tasks:

  • Complete diagnostic assessments and case manage the process for students suspected to have emotional/behavioral disabilities;
  • Collaborate with community service providers to enhance students’ achievement;
    Consult, brainstorm, and problem solve with principals and guardians on special education issues and social problems in homes and schools;
  • Work closely with principals and caregivers in multiple schools;
    Coordinate school-based mental health services;
  • Facilitate improved attendance and truancy prevention;
  • Supervise graduate-level school social work interns;
  • Facilitate caregiver/student/staff meetings to resolve contentious situations;
  • Consult with staff to develop empathy and to solve difficult student behavior problems;
  • Serve as the local educational agency representative at individualized education program (IEP) meetings.

Higley said in any given day she may find herself helping a family obtain winter clothing they otherwise could not afford for their children, visiting a home to assist a disabled parent with paperwork to ensure their child is not excluded due to immunization law, talking with a landlord on behalf of a family facing homelessness, collaborating with mental health professionals and/or Child Protective Services workers to support students receiving or needing services, and advocating at an IEP meeting for a student with a disability.

In addition to providing much-needed support and services for the students and families she works with, Higley has supported students going into the school social work field for years by supervising graduate students, providing mentorship to new school social workers, and serving as adjunct faculty at two universities. Having received the statewide award, Higley would like to raise awareness of school social worker services because – in part – of the shortage of them in the area. “Eau Claire is by far the shortest-staffed district among the top 15 most populated districts in the state,” Higley said. “There are only three of us, other districts of this size would average six to 11 or thereabouts.”


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