Urban library expands reach and impact through community partnerships


San Mateo County Libraries is an urban library system that receives more than 2 million visitors annually to its 12 branches. Like many urban libraries, SMCL is always looking for new ways to reach their community’s large and diverse population. With that in mind, the staff has strategically partnered with other organizations in the San Mateo community to expand the reach and impact of their programs.

LENA Start at San Mateo Library

Families hear a presentation of awards at the most recent joint graduation celebration for LENA Start through San Mateo County Libraries, which brought together families from three groups, including The Primary School. Forming strategic partnerships with community organizations has enabled the library to expand their impact and serve more families.

Through these partnerships, San Mateo County Libraries has been able to reach deeper into the community to those who may not see themselves as library users and help them understand the breadth of services that the library has to offer. One such service is the parent group program LENA Start. The library was one of the initial adopters of the program when it launched in 2015. They began by offering Start classes out of library branch locations in the first year. After running several successful groups, library staff began to leverage their connections to local organizations to deliver the program through a multi-agency model.

“By expanding LENA Start through our Talk Read Sing program to local community organizations that provide services to high need communities, we are able to strengthen our reach for providing families with early literacy engagement for their babies,” said Library Director Anne-Marie Despain. “The Talk Read Sing collaboration perfectly fits our mission to create opportunities for growth and enrichment in the communities we serve.”

How does the multi-agency model operate?

The library currently works with San Mateo County Housing Authority, Ravenswood Family Health Center, and The Primary School to implement LENA Start parent groups. Each partner operates as an associate, providing facilities to hold the program, assistance with recruitment, and sometimes child care during sessions. Certified LENA Start coordinators from the library staff facilitate the sessions; partners may provide back of the room support to help with logistics.This mutually-beneficial approach means that the associate organizations can offer the program to their families without needing to set aside staff time to run it and SMCL can spend less time on the logistics of recruitment and facilities and more time building relationships with families and delivering the program.

“The library shouldn’t be spending funds and energy on outreach if we already have that connection,” said Nora Razon, Manager of Community and Family Engagement at The Primary School. “When we launched a Start group, they didn’t have to print fliers. We were able to talk about LENA Start in our sessions for five minutes, do some follow up calls, and have families show up.”

Flexibility for scalability

Working through multiple agencies also provides the program the flexibility it needs to grow. When one organization doesn’t have the capacity to run groups for part of the year, the program can be offered through another partner. Cycling between partners enables the library to reach families across multiple networks and demographics from different parts of the community.

Forming partnerships is one of the most effective ways to supercharge your program’s reach and impact. Watch a webinar discussion with a panel of representatives from LENA Start sites to hear how they’ve identified and engaged key partners.

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Three elements of partnership fit

The structure of partnerships will vary depending on the needs of the program. In the case of LENA Start, there were a few key factors that helped shape the partnerships they chose:

  • Ease of implementation: LENA Start is a plug and play program, so all the materials are already there for it to be implemented the same way no matter who your partner is or where it’s being delivered. It doesn’t require any specially trained staff or equipment.
  • Mission alignment: Ravenswood Family Health Center, San Mateo County Housing Authority, and The Primary School each have a unique mission, but LENA Start offers the versatility to help each organization meet its goals by enhancing healthy child development, building protective factors, and supporting kindergarten readiness respectively.
  • Diverse data: Partners will want to show the success of the program, but different metrics may be meaningful depending on their goals. It’s important to offer a range of data on program outcomes, so that partners can report the data that supports their mission. With LENA Start, SMCL is able to share not only core LENA data on increases in adult words and conversational turns, but also on eight domains relating to parenting self-efficacy and knowledge measured by the Parenting Perceptions and Actions Survey and expressive and receptive language development milestones measured by the LENA Developmental Snapshot™.
Setting up for success

From the beginning, it’s important to make sure that expectations match the program. Do both parties understand the commitment they are making and what’s expected of them? When everyone shares excitement for the program and are willing to be collaborators in the process, partnerships can achieve incredible results for program success.

About San Mateo County Libraries

San Mateo County Libraries is a Joint Powers Authority that comprises the cities of Atherton, Belmont, Brisbane, East Palo Alto, Foster City, Half Moon Bay, Millbrae, Pacifica, Portola Valley, San Carlos, Woodside, and the unincorporated areas of San Mateo County. Our vision is to ignite growth through transformative experiences, and it is our mission to strengthen our communities by creating an inclusive sense of place and an environment of learning. We are leaders in establishing a foundation for early literacy and supporting exploration and growth at every stage of life — we offer an array of high quality programs focused on supporting early learning and we’re proud to partner with LENA. San Mateo County Libraries ignite growth through transformative experiences. Visit smcl.org for information about our extensive digital and physical collections, twelve community libraries, Bookmobile, Lookmobile and the 12,000+ workshops, classes, concerts, readings, and other activities offered annually.


The LENA Team is a dedicated group of professionals who are passionate about increasing awareness of the importance of early interactive talk. We are statisticians, speech-language pathologists, curriculum specialists, engineers, and linguists.

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