Using Case Studies in a Family-School Partnering Course

Nov 20 2018

Case studies are a powerful way to prepare educators for family engagement. Learn how Darcy Hutchins at University of Denver uses them in her courses. 

The Global Family Research Project’s Case Studies are a valuable resource that I have used in a graduate-level education course for many years. Over time, I have refined how to best use the case studies for my students. 

The course that I teach at the University of Denver, Family-School Partnering (FSP) and Consultation, is part of the master’s program for school psychologists and early childhood special-education majors.

Family-School Partnerships and Consultation Syllabus

Download Darcy Hutchins' Family-School Partnering and Consultation course syllabus.

We spend two weeks of a 10-week quarter studying and discussing the cases: one week focuses on cases related to universal FSP strategies, while the other week is geared toward cases that concentrate on targeted and intensive FSP initiatives. The remaining six weeks include discussions about research, theory, and practice related to the National Standards for Family-School Partnerships. Below is what a typical class focused on case studies looks like.

Using a variety of cases to develop perspective-taking skills of prospective educators and clinicians

Cases related to universal FSP strategies:

  • Suspension at Aurora Middle School
  • Defining “Fine"
  • “Daddy Says This New Math Is Crazy”
  • Bridging Worlds: Family Engagement in the Transition to Kindergarten

Cases related to targeted and intensive FSP initiatives:

  • Can We Talk About Family?
  • Culture Clash at Intermediate School #1
  • Friction at Madison Family Literacy Program
  • Tim Kelly: A School Responds to a Family in Need

You can learn more about many of these cases in Preparing Educators for Family Engagement or email  by emailing us at

Before Class:

Typically, the course has between 12 and 18 students. I divide the students into four groups and assign each group a different case to read prior to class. 

I ask students to come to class prepared to discuss the following about their case:

  1. The situation, the key individuals in the case, and the major issues to be addressed.
  2. Contributing issues (beliefs, practices, values, policies, history) affecting the case.
  3. Potential or possible next steps.
  4. What could be done or how might you want to replay the case in the future?
  5. What larger systems play a role and may need to be changed or advocated for in the future?

Class—Phase 1:

At the beginning of class, students meet with their classmates assigned to read the same article. They spend about 12–15 minutes discussing the questions outlined above. During this time, they share insights and basically make sure they’re all “on the same page” about the case. The groups discuss similar themes, particularly about the need for fostering a welcoming climate and effective communication.

Class—Phase 2:

Next, I regroup the students to be with classmates who read different cases, so each group has each of the four case studies represented. Each student has 15 minutes to summarize the case and get feedback from classmates about the questions outlined above. As the students are discussing, I keep track of time, give them a five-minute warning, and circulate the room to observe the conversations. During the discussion time, students relate experiences they have encountered with the case studies at their practicum sites. Communication, climate, culture, and asset-based thinking are common themes that emerge from the discussion. Occasionally, I will ask the students to relate these themes to student achievement.

Class—Phase 3:

Finally, after each group discusses the four case studies, the students reconvene with their original group to share insights and advice from their classmates about their assigned case. Each group then writes a paper, due the following week, addressing the five questions listed above. The paper, generally five to seven pages, is to include applicable research, course discussion, and classmate recommendations from the small-group discussions.

Each year in course feedback, the students comment that the case studies are one of their most useful assignments. I believe this is because they are practical, and the experiences resonate with what they experience at their practicum sites.

Lessons Learned

For those wanting to use GFRP’s case studies and replicate the model I use at the University of Denver, I have a few pieces of advice.

  1. Create Diverse Groups. When assigning groups, think about including diverse voices and perspectives. I assign students to work together from different practicum sites, grade levels, and majors.
  2. Keep track of time. When I first started using the case studies, I was a bit looser with time and it just wasn’t as efficient. Over the years, I’ve found that 15 minutes per case for the small-group discussion seems to be the right amount for insights without the students getting off topic.
  3. Circulate the room and be prepared to ask follow-up questions. Sometimes, groups speed through the case discussion and don’t dig deeper or talk about the broader context. By sitting in on the discussions, I am able to guide the group if they need a little push. For example, I have students reflect on how the cases are similar or different from their own experiences. Many students can relate to the cases because they have practicum assignments in high-needs schools. I also encourage them to relate the more qualitative aspect of FSP to students’ academic and behavioral outcomes.

That’s it! I highly recommend incorporating the GFRP cases into inservice, preservice, or professional development courses about family-school-community partnering.


Darcy Hutchins, Ph.D. in education policy from the University of Maryland—College Park, is the director of Family Partnerships for the Colorado Department of Education (CDE). She provides support to districts to implement family partnership programs for student success, particularly through parent participation on school and district accountability committees. In her role at CDE, Hutchins staffs the State Advisory Council for Parent Involvement in Education (SACPIE). She also teaches in the School of Education at the University of Denver and serves on various advisory boards.


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