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Inside New Guidelines for How Districts Will Judge Social-Emotional Learning Products

inside new guidelines for how districts will judge social emotional learning products
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Guidelines released by the influential group CASEL place an emphasis on programs and products supporting equity, and whether materials are developmentally appropriate for students.

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10 Tips for Making Dinner Easier for Busy Moms

10 tips for making dinner easier for busy moms

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Written by LeAnne Varenkamp of Dream Dinners – The Original Meal Kit Company

Yesterday, was one of those days. Laundry on the couch for the second (or third…) day, a sick toddler, trying to help with high school algebra… Add in the ongoing effects of the seemingly never-ending pandemic, and I pretty much felt like I wasn’t getting anything accomplished! Then, I snapped at my fourth grader. I was feeling “mom guilt” all the way.

So I needed to stop, take a breath, and remind myself about what’s important. As a homeschool mom with eight kids, I believe it is more important to be a parent and to connect with my children rather than get everything on my to-do list done.

Dream Dinners Family Pic

Our job is to guide our children on their journey to becoming adults and to teach them how to navigate life when it doesn’t go as expected. We don’t get to choose our circumstances, but we do choose how to manage them.

Right now, we may see our kids all day long, yet we still need to pause and connect as a family, remembering who we are as a family unit. The family dinner is the perfect place to do that. There is something special about sharing a meal. It’s where everyone belongs and participates. It’s where we find joy.

Getting the family together at the same time and getting a meal on the table can be challenging in the best of times, let alone right now. As the owner of a Dream Dinners meal kit franchise, I’ve learned a great deal over the years about the importance of family meals. I’ve also picked up a lot of tips on how to make meals easier and more enjoyable to prepare.

Dream Dinners Meal

Here are 10 tips to help you through the pandemic and in the future.

  1. Prioritize family mealtimes. Choose the ideal number of weekly family meals that makes sense for your family. Every family is different. The important thing is that you are being intentional. If work and school schedules make dinners hard, have family breakfasts or lunches.
  2. Avoid “food court chaos” and the temptation to make multiple dishes to keep everyone happy. Teach your kids to be concerned about others, not themselves. Each meal may not be their favorite, but they need to learn they don’t always get what they want. This also helps reduce “picky eater” problems.
  3. Engage the entire family in creating the menu and preparing the meal. As moms, we’re teachers and trainers, not servants. Involving the kids in the whole process, even budgeting, teaches them life skills. Start by having them with you in the kitchen during pre-school. At first, they help, but use the opportunity to train them. Soon enough, they can take the lead. With practice, junior high schoolers can make dinner on their own.
  4. Fix and freeze dinners in advance. Dream Dinners pioneered the fix-and-freeze meal kit concept nearly 20 years ago. Customers visit one of Dream Dinners’ 70 local kitchens where in about an hour they prepare a month of meal kits that are then frozen. (Due to COVID restrictions, kits currently are being made for customers by Dream Dinners’ staff and picked up or delivered.) You can use the same process to save a huge amount of time, especially if you involve the kids in the prep. Once they are old enough, they can thaw and cook the meals themselves.
  5. Coordinate meals with unit studies, especially unit studies covering history, world cultures, math, and life skills. For example, when studying the history and culture of Italy, create different meals from each region of the country. And look for meals with lots of measurements when your children are learning about fractions.
  6. Make meals fun! Eating breakfast foods for dinner while dressed in PJs or creating theme dinners complete with costumes and table decorations are great examples of turning mealtime into an enjoyable event.
  7. Enforce a “no device rule.” The average American right now is streaming eight hours of media content every day! In our house, all devices have to go into a basket and be turned off before everyone sits down. This way, everyone is fully present, and we are not allowing our devices to control us.
  8. Master the art of table talk. Good conversation begins not with speaking but with listening. The key to connecting with your kids is empathy. Work at eliciting their feelings. Show you care, and the conversation will flow.
  9. Curb the conflict. Choose your battles, focusing on what’s really important while avoiding defensiveness. Be respectful of your kids, no matter their ages, and encourage them to do the same. Teach them the power of saying, “I’m sorry,” and don’t be afraid to apologize yourself. Last, set – and enforce – a no yelling policy.
  10. Instill manners. Teaching kids to behave well is one of our most important – and difficult – challenges, especially at the end of a long day when we’re tired. Dinnertime, nonetheless, is a great time to reinforce kindness and respect and demonstrate good manners. A few suggestions: set limits on acceptable conversation topics and establish house rules, such as washing hands before dinner and asking to be excused before leaving.

Homeschooling is all about teaching children to run on their own batteries. Too often, moms try to do it all when we should be teaching kids how to be self-sufficient and how to contribute to family life. Involving them in dinner, from planning through clean-up, is a wonderful way to accomplish this. It also creates opportunities for older children to grow by guiding younger siblings through the meal preparation process.

Perhaps even more important is the role dinner plays in building up each family member and helping each one find a place of belonging and security, especially during such a difficult time.

I strongly recommend The Hour that Matters Most: The Surprising Power of the Family Meal, co-authored by my dear friend Tina Kuna, who founded Dream Dinners with Stephanie Allen. It’s available here on Amazon.

Stay well and bon appétit!

Dream Dinners author infoHi, I’m LeAnne Varenkamp! I’m married to my kindergarten sweetheart, and I am mom to eight awesome kids. I also work outside the home for a great company whose mission is to help families gather around the dinner table. As a family, we have a heart for community and serving others, and we are always on the lookout for ways to encourage people to thrive. Right now, our homeschooling adventure includes restoring our 100+ year old farmhouse. For more information about Dream Dinners, please visit my website.

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How Districts Plan to Address Pandemic ‘Learning Loss’ in the Coming Year

how districts plan to address pandemic learning loss in the coming year
Illustration of a brain made up of gears.

An EdWeek Market Brief survey asked district officials what kinds of strategies they anticipate using to take on student academic losses during the pandemic — the so-called “COVID slide.”

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The E-Rate Program: Three Pivotal Issues for Education Companies

the e rate program three pivotal issues for education companies
market trends 02242021 960517256 02 02

Many school systems applying for E-rate funding this year are focused on a new set of needs, and their shifting priorities have implications for ed-tech companies.

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Testing Providers Could Be Forced to Pivot Quickly as Result of Biden’s State Testing Policy

testing providers could be forced to pivot quickly as result of bidens state testing policy
Testing Group IMG
Cropped view of a multiracial group of young men and women sitting in a row at a table, writing with pencils on paper. They are taking a test or filling out an application. Focus is on the hand of the young man in the middle in the gray shirt.

The Biden administration’s recent guidance for how states should carry out federally mandated tests is likely to have implications for the testing industry, potentially affecting everything from the work required to design the exams to scheduling them to companies’ bottom lines.

In a letter to states, the U.S. Department of Education this week informed states that they won’t be allowed to cancel federally mandated standardized exams this school year — unlike last spring, when they were given the right to shelve end-of-year exams.

But the agency gave states the right to propose shortened versions of state exams in English/language arts, math, and science, and is allowing them to delay the assessments, potentially even until next school year.

Typically, test scoring is done over a three-week time period, but a longer testing window increases the chances that the process becomes less efficient, which could raise test providers’ costs, said Barry Topol, managing partner of Assessment Solutions Group. His organization provides assessment cost, management and state accountability systems analysis and consulting to states and other entities.

“The big costs of scoring are the variable costs of monitoring those [test] raters and readers, and training them and having them score,” he said in an interview with EdWeek Market Brief.

Though the department’s letter to states said it won’t invite state requests for blanket waivers of assessments akin to the broad waivers issued by the department last spring, the agency did say it will allow states to seek waivers from federal requirements for school accountability, which would include a waiver from the requirement that states test 95 percent of eligible students, as my Education Week colleagues reported Monday.

And despite the department’s decision to not invite applications for broad assessment waivers, states could still seek them.

For instance, Pennsylvania state lawmakers on Wednesday asked the Biden administration to waive assessment requirements this year because of the pandemic.

Reworking State Contracts

If states take advantage of the administration’s permission to delay this year’s assessments, that could increase logistical and hiring costs for assessment providers.

Asked whether longer testing windows would make it more difficult to efficiently hire test scorers for this cycle, Cambium Assessment President Steve Kromer said the scenario is one that the company can adapt to meet. Scorers are generally receptive, he said, to offers to extend their contracts if necessary.

Cambium Assessment currently has 27 different contracts with states for summative types of assessments, and provides mostly computer-based tests, he said.

As there were last year, there could be contract renegotiations between Cambium and its customers as these states explore the possibilities of delaying or modifying aspects of this year’s tests, Kromer said.

“We would need to understand what the impact of a change would be, in terms of how we adjust our capacity based on our anticipated volumes of helpdesk calls and volumes of computer-based tests,” Kromer said. “We’re going to — as any business — look at adjustments to our capacity.”

If assessment providers are administering tests remotely, an extended test window could place additional cost burdens by requiring extensions of leases for test facilities and computers, Topol said.

On the other hand, if states desire shorter assessments, it could challenge companies to quickly compress the length of these exams while still ensuring the tests are still robust, Topol said.

“One way to do it would be to eliminate those constructed response items, but then you’ve got some issues with are you providing adequate content coverage?” he said. “The later in the school year… that you do that, the faster the vendors have to respond, the more expensive it is, and the more you introduce more chances for human error somewhere in the process.”

Cambium Assessment’s revenue took a hit when standardized tests were canceled last year. The company could sustain some revenue impacts this cycle as well, potentially associated with longer testing windows and modifying test structures, Kromer said.

But other costs could fall, Kromer said.

“You may not have to pay the cost to have [physical test books] taken to one of the states and have all those test books delivered and pick them back up,” he said. “There are costs that would go away.”

Follow EdWeek Market Brief on Twitter @EdMarketBrief or connect with us on LinkedIn.


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Pennsylvania Governor Pitches School Funding Overhaul

pennsylvania governor pitches school funding overhaul
FILE - In this Nov. 4, 2020, file photo, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf speaks during a news conference in Harrisburg, Pa., regarding the counting of ballots in the 2020 general election. Facing a deep, pandemic-inflicted budget deficit, Gov. Wolf will ask lawmakers for billions of dollars funded by higher taxes on Pennsylvania’s huge natural gas industry for workforce development and employment assistance to help the state recover. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

A number of governors have called for boosting education spending for the coming year’s budget, betting that the economy will lift their states’ revenues. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed an ambitious increase of his own, one that hinges not on economic conditions, but rather an overhaul of how the state funds schools.

The second-term Democrat says his plan would result in $1.3 billion more in aid flowing to K-12 schools across the state, through a combination of tax increases and a reworking of Pennsylvania’s school finance system.

Even strong supporters of the plan, however, say it faces tough odds in the state’s Republican-controlled legislature, at least in its current form.

The core of Wolf’s proposal is a change to the method through which Pennsylvania funds schools. The state currently has a funding formula that was designed, in theory, to support underfunded districts. But only a small portion of the overall money flowing to K-12 systems, about 11 percent — by the governor’s estimate — goes through the formula, and the remainder is allocated separately, through a method that school officials say is tethered to antiquated school enrollment counts.

Wolf’s proposal would route all of the state’s basic education funding, which now stands at $6.2 billion per year, plus an additional $200 million he’s proposed for next year, through the funding formula.

The governor says the existing funding approach has punished tax-poor school systems and does not allow most of them to account for changes in enrollment and other costs that have spiraled over time. He has vowed that “no school will lose a single dollar” in state resource as a result of the change.

But it would require new revenue, and Wolf is calling for an increase in the personal income tax from 3.09 percent to 4.49 percent. It would shift the tax burden away from lower-income earners and increase them on those with higher pay, by adjusting exemptions.

“Pennsylvania’s school funding system is unfair to students, teachers and communities,” Wolf said in a statement. “The state still largely funds schools based on student enrollment from 30 years ago, which underfunds growing districts from our small towns to our big cities. My common sense plan restores fairness to school funding to ensure every community can provide the quality education students need to succeed in life.”

Eye on Personnel

GOP legislators, however, appear to be lining up in opposition to Wolf’s plan, arguing that it will hurt businesses and a state economy attempting to recover from the pain of COVID.

“The pandemic hit Main Street. More than anyone else they had to deal with the governor’s draconian shutdowns and now he wants to put more burden on them the largest tax increase in Pennsylvania history,” said Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, according to the Tribune-Review.

“The mom-and-pop stores will bear the brunt of this proposal,” Corman said. “Small employers and middle-class families are what drive economic recoveries. Governor Wolf has put yet another target on their backs.” 

Mark DiRocco, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said he did not expect Wolf’s proposal to make it across the finish line in its existing approach, despite Republican opposition.

“This has been an historic ask, and we don’t know where it’s going to go,” DiRocco said.

But many of his organization’s members – mostly top K-12 district administrators – are convinced that a change in the funding system is long overdue. Many districts across the state struggle to keep up amid a raft of costs that rise, year after year – in serving populations such as special needs students and English-language learners, and in shifting enrollment. The current funding scheme, he said, does little to help.

Emergency federal aid to schools, the latest round of which was signed into law by former President Donald Trump in late December, has bolstered Pennsylvania’s districts, and so would additional aid proposed by President Joe Biden if it comes through, he said.

But much of that aid has supported one-time purchases, such as COVID-related safety equipment and laptops. Changing the funding formula would get at districts’ underlying, core expenses, particularly around paying for personnel, said DiRocco. His organization’s 900 members say they have a particular need for mental health specialists, such as school psychologists and counselors, as well as staff who can address learning loss.

Wolf’s plan “starts the conversation,” he said, “and most of our members want to be part of that conversation.”

Photo: Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf at a news conference in November, by AP Photo/Julio Cortez.


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LIGHTNING DEAL ALERT! Is math bogging down your homeschool day? (Discount Code expires 2/26!)

lightning deal alert is math bogging down your homeschool day discount code expires 2 26

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