PRESTON -- It's easier to find a roadmap than a children's book in this little town on a highway on Maryland's Eastern Shore. There are two gas stations but no grocery store. There's no traffic light. And there's no library.

Yet Preston, surrounded by flat fields and steeped in farming traditions, is the birthplace of an early-childhood literacy campaign that has impressed large schools and leading educators in the state.

All because of the Preston school principal, Susan K. Frank, who set about changing the way this largely working-class community thinks about reading with an unswerving sureness of purpose.

Preston Elementary tries to instill in children a love of the written word long before they're ready for school. Reading instruction here begins at birth: A school liaison visits new parents to talk about the importance of reading and to drop off a book or two. Families are invited to bring their little ones, from infants to preschoolers, to twice-monthly reading workshops and story times at the school.

"This has really kept me going on a daily reading routine," says Cathy Jones, 36, who was surprised by a home visit when Megan, now 3, was a few months old. "We've been coming since she was a baby, and now, every night, she chooses a book for us to read."

More of Maryland's elementary schools are trying to build on education research that shows that the earlier children learn basic reading skills, the better. Libraries are working to increase visits by parents and day care providers with a campaign called "It's Never Too Early."

In Montgomery County, the superintendent wants to hand out literacy packets along with birth certificates. In Baltimore, a foundation has called for preschool preparation of 2-year-olds from poor families.

Preston (population 566) has done all of it -- without a town library, without a media blitz and without money from Caroline County's school system, which ranks at the bottom of the state in education spending.

Its "Readers From Birth" program not only has been embraced by the community, but has been credited with helping to raise the school's reading test scores far above the state average.

Since Frank became principal of the red-brick school in the center of town, the percentage of its third-graders who score satisfactorily on Maryland's annual exams has nearly doubled, from 42.6 percent five years ago to 77.8 percent last year.

Frank, 49, had studied early childhood education before getting a doctorate in school administration. Her chief goal was to improve Preston Elementary's test scores. But Frank, who grew up in Denton and taught for years in Caroline County, also recognized the social significance a school can have in a town that's barely a mile long.

"I really wanted to bring in parents and children so they'd be part of the school even before they walked in here for prekindergarten," she says. "Our little town doesn't have a lot. That means it's even more important that our school be the center of the community."

Promoting the concept

Frank spent a year putting together the program, talking to community leaders and checking school records for younger siblings. She distributed promotional fliers at doctors' offices and at the hospital 11 miles west in Easton.

She lined up a $500 community grant and chatted up the Preston ladies club, which donated $100. It wasn't a lot of money, but she scouted for book sales and shopped at outlets. She dug into her own pocketbook. In time, she had collected enough children's books to start handing them out.

Her parent liaison hit the road. Preston Elementary has a population that rivals the town's -- 403 pupils who come from small towns, subdivisions and farms for miles around. Some children have college-educated parents; many do not. A third of the pupils meet the poverty standard for free lunches.

Not every parent agreed to a home visit. Some were at work; others simply declined. But over the past four years, scores have accepted -- more than 150 children benefited from the program.

Recruiting new mothers

Kelly Platzke, 31, recalls her surprise when the school called not long after she came home from the hospital with her son, Tucker. Melva Jean Glessner, now the media specialist, stopped by with some literature on infant development and a board book. Platzke watched, fascinated, as Glessner read to her son.