Nikki Chaplan: Embracing the Middle-School Mind



Many adults view middle school through the lens of their own recollections—here a little foggy,

there a bit of anxiety—and wonder what awaits as their children start to change in significant

ways. For Nikki Chaplan, the new Stanley Middle School Principal, she sees this phase through

the lens of a seasoned educator: it is an age of incredible growth and transformation. With a

wide smile and a sense of curiosity, she shares her excitement and interest in this stage of child

development, saying, “the chemical changes that kids go through at this age are equal to that of

a toddler. There are so many!” With sincere enthusiasm, she immediately conveys a deep

understanding and compassionate patience for the ups and downs that we’ve come to

associate with the middle school years. Her reassuring demeanor conveys a clear message: she

loves middle school. And she’s ready to get to know the kids:. “The most important goal at

the start of this year is to understand the community.”


Putting aside the rapid brain changes for a moment, she sees these short years as a “last hurrah

when learning is still really fun.” Through broader course offerings and LPIE-funded electives,

middle schoolers can begin to try new things and explore the world around them. Students

tend to become increasingly focused and explore less as the intensity of high school sets in.

Here in middle school, students have more freedom to make curricular choices, study different

topics, and engage in a little self-discovery along the way. This ability to explore makes for a

fascinating time when their brains become ever more capable of sophisticated and complex

thinking. With that, she is ready to meet the students where they are during this complicated

phase and journey through it with them. She wants to support those brain changes and actively

shape students’ development. Ask what drives her as an educator, and she will be quick to say

that the most important thing is “making data driven decisions in the best interests of kids. Our

role is to break down barriers so kids can access their knowledge and skills. We must lead with

kindness and compassion and make plans if something is not going right.”


So, what do those plans look like in a school setting? For her, the most exciting thing always

comes back to studying the data and making good decisions accordingly. Using rubrics and

assessments to gather data, determining what the students need, and ascertaining the right

help are all consistent steps towards growth and improvement. “What are the needs of the

students? How can we intervene appropriately?” are the types of questions that the best

educators ask. Always returning to the data is the best way to facilitate learning and help

middle schoolers during this time.


Ms. Chaplan got her start studying that data not just in one area, but across many educational

disciplines. She started teaching at Monte Vista High School in 2005 where she taught English.

When she started at Monte Vista, in April of 2005, she was the third teacher to step into the

classroom that year. After eight full years, Ms. Chaplan transitioned to a new role of “Teacher

on Special Assignment,” implementing Common Core. The role transitioned to focus on

creating and implementing a site-based literacy program. The importance of literacy across all

subject areas is a core belief of Ms. Chaplan: “Reading is a part of all disciples, not just English.

Close reading is a critical skill required for informational texts in science, examining artifacts in

history, and analyzing short stories in English. Even PE, which is a health program, is not just

physical education. Close reading encompasses analyzing food wrappers and packages as well.”

Once Common Core had been implemented, the money the State of California earmarked for

such roles went away. Ms. Chaplan says, “I worked myself out of a job.” Being able to

collaborate with Professional Development and across subject areas, however, opened many

possibilities. She realized she enjoyed making things run better. The shift to administration was

the logical next step, and she easily assumed the roles of middle school administrator at Pine

Valley and Iron Horse Middle Schools followed by assistant principal at San Ramon Valley High

School.


Always looking for an opportunity to grow, Ms. Chaplan recently turned to the Lafayette school

district for the next stage of her journey. Here in Lafayette, she will continue to apply her skills

to supporting the educational needs of middle schoolers. She loves Lafayette because, as she

says, “it’s a good community with good schools.” What’s more, she “felt comfortable right

away. Both interviews felt really good” and there is a “really lovely energy” in our school

district. Her passion, though, is to look for ways to improve schools. “The best way to help more

kids is to make sites better.” Even in areas that are “high achieving” there is “always room to

grow.”


At Stanley, Academy is a big part of where that growth can happen, providing the perfect

opportunity to reach all students. Academy is a block of time scheduled into each school week

when students can get extra help if they need it. The concept is relatively new to the Lafayette

School District, having been implemented only two years ago during the pandemic. The San

Ramon Valley Unified School District has made use of Academy for many years, so Ms. Chaplan

has extensive experience with making the most of that time. At the beginning of the year,

teachers are establishing expectations in the classroom. Soon, though, when the real work

starts, students may find that they need a boost. If they are struggling, Academy is there to

support them. There, they can get help as well as new teaching. As students learn to become

stewards of their own education growth, they can make choices about how they use Academy.

For students who need extra help, some teachers may tag them. That’s where the data-driven

decisions really come into play. Academy is all about making sure students are learning

essential skills. It becomes easier to reach all kids, too, thanks to the smaller class sizes made

possible by LPIE’s funding. Ms. Chaplan notes that the “class sizes are so small, that kids and

teachers make connections,” and these connections boost learning.


Another resource that supports student growth is the extensive LPIE funding for Chromebooks,

which give all students access to technology that supports their learning. Ms. Chaplan says she

is “thrilled to see students handle their Chromebooks respectfully and easily transition from

writing to typing and back again. This resource, provided to all students, is an essential part of

ensuring an equitable experience for all students. Chromebooks grant all students the ability to

access content in the same way, with the same tool.” It’s just one more means of making sure

students have the essentials so they can grow in their learning.


Ms. Chaplan pauses to reflect on our earlier discussion of what makes middle school unique.

The students’ minds are changing so rapidly, that they need more than just academic support.

“All of the best teaching practices are great,” but she emphasizes that “the relationship with

the kids comes first.” Educators know that students learn best when they are supported by

teachers and invested in content. What gets middle schoolers more excited and engaged than

anything else is the ability to choose electives and work with the talented people who teach

them. LPIE is proud to provide the funding to make this happen. When asked what LPIE

electives do to benefit the students, Ms. Chaplan’s answer is an enthusiastic “So much! This is

where LPIE's contributions make a huge impact,” she says. When it comes to electives, “there is

real fervor and excitement!” Ms. Chaplan says. “All of the kids get so excited about the choice.”

With electives such as art, drama, home economics, music, robotics, wood tech, world

languages, and more, middle school becomes a place primed for students to discover more

about what inspires them the most.


When the school day is done, Ms. Chaplan heads home to what inspires her the most and

makes her most proud: “My kids. They are everything. To watch them grow, make mistakes,

learn about who they are is the best thing we can do.” Her perspective on raising her own

children shines a light on her views as an educator. This guiding philosophy will shape what she

does as Stanley Middle School’s principal and allow her to set the tone of the school—one that

is supportive, encouraging, and understanding of the students in her care. It is easy to see how

eager she is to set that tone, especially when asked about what makes her the most excited

about the upcoming year. Without missing a beat, she says, “The kids!” It feels safe to say that

they will love her as much as she loves them, giving her the same welcome that the rest of the

Lafayette School community has. “I’ve had such an amazing welcome; it feels like I’m home.” In

a final note of understanding the quirkiness that defines the middle school years, Ms. Chaplan

leaves her students with the same advice she’d share with her middle school self: “You’re

gonna get braces; it’s gonna be OK.”


Book Recommendations

Grading for Equity by Joe Feldman

Dare to Lead by Brene Brown

How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott Haims

The Person You Mean to Be by Dolly Chugh

Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood by Lisa

Damour