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Research-Based Practice

Communities of Practice: Creating the Bilingual School Mental Health Network in Colorado

By Bryn Harris, Becky Steensen, Mary Beth Klotz, Anastasia Kalamaros Skalski, & Barb Bieber

A growing strategy in the world of educational reform is the use of communities of practice (CoP) as a tool for promoting sustainable systems change. The term CoP was first coined by Etienne Wegner and Jean Lave while studying the relationship between mentors and their apprentices (Wegner, 2006). They observed the complex dynamic learning, relationships, and body of knowledge that grew from these communities of learners and have now spent decades studying the qualities, characteristics, and common outcomes achieved by successful CoPs. Wegner (2006) states that communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. The National IDEA Partnership, a federally funded technical assistance center in which NASP participates, has been the leading force in the American educational community for promoting the use of CoPs. They have focused on promoting how CoPs can solve persistent educational problems and improve practice.

There are three basic characteristics of a CoP that distinguish it from other types of communities:

  • The Domain: Each CoP has a shared identity that unifies the members of the community. This is referred to as the domain and is typically the common interest that brings the group together (e.g., bilingual school mental health services).

  • The Community: These are the people within a CoP who are dedicated to interacting regularly and building the relationships needed to address the problems of practice that the CoP seeks to improve. CoP members engage in shared dialogues, activities, and information and resource sharing as part of their participation in the community.

  • The Practice: A CoP is also defined by the fact that its members are not just interested parties, but are actual practitioners who will take the experience of the community to their daily work. They will apply in practice a shared repertoire of resources, stories, tools, and ways of solving problems.

As CoPs organize and dedicate themselves to solving problems of practice, they embrace this work by engaging in five basic functions:

  • Educate: A CoP will typically collect and disseminate information related to the problems of practice.

  • Support: A CoP will establish a method for communicating and interacting with one another. Often members of a CoP may be scattered across a large geographic area, so having a method for interacting that can be applied virtually is important. Common methods might be phone conferencing, using software like GoToMeeting, setting up a wiki, and more.

  • Cultivate: A CoP will regularly consider how they are sustaining a positive rhythm of interaction and will engage in activities and discussions to keep the momentum of the community moving.

  • Encourage: A CoP will promote the work and accomplishments of the community by talking about the work, promoting access to the community's acquired knowledge, and honoring the progress and successes of the community.

  • Integrate: A CoP will involve and integrate the community work into the policies and decision-making of the organization. This effort to integrate the work of the CoP into the larger system helps acknowledge the value and contribution that the shared understanding and practice has on the overall successful operation of the organizational system.

Value and Benefits of CoPs

For school psychologists, there are many benefits and great potential value from participating in a CoP. By uniting various stakeholders around an issue of mutual concern, CoPs capitalize on the wealth of experience and the different perspectives of participants. Rather than a top-down method of bringing about change to educational practice that is so commonly experienced in schools, CoPs provide a method to build consensus, build mutual commitment to a goal, and develop allies to improve an existing system. This philosophy resonates well with school psychologists, who are trained in family–school collaboration, problem solving, and consultation techniques. A CoP is a valuable tool for helping school psychologists build consensus and cooperation while also addressing a potential thorny practice issue. The use of CoPs is consistent with the NASP Practice Model and a focus on systems-level services that enhance outcomes for students and families. Facilitating or participating in a CoP may also have the added bonus of connecting school psychologists to other key players from the district, state, or national levels and simultaneously raise awareness of school psychologists' skills and expertise.

CoPs in Practice

Describing what a CoP looks like is a difficult task because it is a process that varies depending on the key players and the issues at hand. Currently, several CoPs exist that are in various phases of development. Some examples include the National Community of Practice on Autism Spectrum Disorder, the National Community of Practice in Support of Transition, and the NCLB–IDEA Collaboration Community (see www.sharedwork.org). These national CoPs, supported through the IDEA Partnership and participating states, comprise many stakeholder groups, such as school psychologists, administrators, teachers, and family members. They are open to new members interested in participating. Another example of a CoP in action is the National Community of Practice on School Behavioral Health. In 2004, a group of national, state, and local stakeholders came together to decide upon eight critical issues facing the field of school behavioral health. As a result, a CoP was established that now involves 23 national organizations, 12 states, 6 technical assistance centers, and 10 practice groups working together to support this community. This CoP primarily focuses on addressing the nonacademic barriers to achievement by creating a shared agenda across stakeholders. A number of activities sustain this work, including the Community Building Forum, the Annual Conference on Advancing School-Based Mental Health, and monthly Web-enhanced conference calls for state-to-state sharing on identified topics (IDEA Partnership, 2011). While state- and local-level CoPs are currently being promoted by many organizations including NASP, presently there are extremely limited data surrounding these CoPs and their mission, work, and progress. One of the first state-level CoPs for school psychologists, entitled the Bilingual School Mental Health Network, was recently created in Colorado. Information about the creation and progress of this CoP is described below.

The Need for a Comunity of Practice in Colorado

A community of practice model offers an opportunity to systematically examine issues that are increasingly important. A bilingual school mental health CoP is especially relevant for the state of Colorado. Currently, 40% of students enrolled in the Colorado school system are from racially and/or ethnically diverse backgrounds (Colorado Department of Education [CDE], 2011). Furthermore, the total Colorado K–12 growth rate over the last 10 years was 15.6%, while the English language learner (ELL) growth rate during the same time period was 260% (CDE, 2010). The growth of ELLs alone, especially in the preschool and early elementary grades, indicates the increased demand for bilingual services and culturally and linguistically responsive practices. In addition, the Colorado Department of Education recognizes the need to focus on disproportionality issues in relation to special education, gifted education, discipline practices, high ELL dropout rates, and lower academic achievement of ELLs (CDE, 2010). A CoP can provide a knowledgeable, solution-focused forum to move these issues forward and can ameliorate some of the professional isolation that occurs when a bilingual mental health practitioner is either the only specialist in a district or part of an overworked group that seldom has time for professional dialog.

Creation of the Bilingual School Mental Health CoP in Colorado

The need for a bilingual school mental health CoP in Colorado was based primarily on changing demographics, professional concerns about roles and practices, and the increased need for collaboration and resource sharing. An inaugural meeting took place at the Colorado Society of School Psychologists annual conference in November of 2010. An astonishing 33 people were in attendance at the CoP meeting from various districts and organizations around the state. The CoP was advertised to be of interest to people who provide bilingual mental health services (of any language) in schools, those who are aiming to become bilingual, and those who are interested in advocating for the needs of bilingual children in our schools. The CoP was initiated by Dr. Bryn Harris, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver in the school psychology program. The Colorado Department of Education supports this CoP monetarily and through administrative support. Resources are shared at the univer- sity level, state department of education level, and district level, thereby increasing the sustainability of this CoP.

The CoP meets quarterly and has many missions. At the inception of the CoP, the group focused on meeting other members, learning about bilingual services in their districts and organizations, learning about the challenges and needs that these individuals have when providing bilingual services, and discussing future directions for this group. The members expressed many challenges when providing bilingual services, including feeling isolated, needing additional training, and dealing with extremely limited resources. In the meetings that followed, the CoP has engaged in many discussions and professional development activities. In general, the CoP members are motivated to increase their competencies by learning about bilingual services and procedures in other districts; conducting and participating in trainings and professional development activities; establishing mentoring relationships; advocating for additional resources, funds, and bilingual employees; and improving school bilingual mental health services in general. As of September 2011, the group had 85 members from across the state of Colorado. A leadership team has also been created that consists of 10 stakeholders who help guide the direction of the CoP; however, this direction is based purely on member suggestions and need. While the meetings are held in Denver, members from other parts of the state can participate through video conferencing. Resources are regularly shared within the group and mentorship relationships have formed.


CoPs are an innovative strategy for advancing educational practice around an issue or problem. They represent a way of working that is collaborative and allows cross-stakeholder groups to address a particular challenge. CoPs benefit school psychologists in many ways and they represent a unique and powerful way to share resources and knowledge, especially in this era of budget cuts. Furthermore, the creation of CoPs that focus on culturally and linguistically responsive practices is especially relevant to current demographics, the need for resource sharing and increased knowledge in this area, and the mentorship that professionals may desire.


Colorado Department of Education. (2011). Colorado education statistics. Retrieved from http://www.cde.state.co.us/index_stats.htm

Colorado Department of Education. (2010). A state of the state 2010. Retrieved from http://www.cde.state.co.us/cde_english/elau_pubsresources.htm

IDEA Partnership. (2011). The national community of practice on school behavioral health. Retrieved from http://www.ideapartnership.org

Wenger, E. (2006). Communities of Practice: A brief introduction. Retrieved from http://www.ewenger.com/theory

Bryn Harris, PhD, NCSP, is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver. Becky Steensen, PhD, NCSP, is a school psychologist with Adams 12 Five Star Schools, in Thornton, CO. Mary Beth Klotz, PhD, NCSP, is NASP Director of IDEA Projects and Technical Assistance. Anastasia Kalamaros Skalski, PhD, is NASP Director of Professional Policy and Practice. Barb Bieber is a mental health consultant for the Colorado Department of Education, Denver.