Reading starts at birth for rural school


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 also has been credited with helping to raise the school's reading test scores far above the state average.

Test scores rising

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, and more than 150 children have 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.

Before long, Platzke was turning to the school for regular reading advice. She has taken Tucker, now 3, and 17-month-old Bekah to almost every Monday story session.

And she credits Glessner and Frank with keeping her spirits up when she found reading aloud harder than she expected.

"I had romanticized the idea of cuddling up and reading with my baby," she remembers. "Well, my son did not want to be read to. He would push the book out of my hand and say, 'No, Mommy.'

"It was so helpful to have someone to talk to. They told me not to force it, just keep trying, sit in his room and let him keep playing and read aloud. I would have been discouraged without them."

Nowadays, Tucker races across the room to pick up his favorite "Thomas the Tank Engine" book. His enthusiasm for the school is causing Platzke to rethink her plan to educate him at home.

At ease in school

One of the benefits, Platzke and other parents agree, is that they and their children have become more comfortable with the school.

That ease can be seen when 3-year-old Megan Jones shows up with her mother - and immediately rushes into the principal's office.

Susan Frank has a reputation in Preston for being fair, achievement-oriented and "strict." But that's hard to tell when little Megan climbs into her lap.

"Do I spoil you?" Frank teases with an indulgent smile and hands her a chocolate.

Such simple moments of affection are the payoff, maybe even better than the recognition from state school officials, for the long hours she's put into the program.

As principal, Frank says, all too often she deals with discipline problems or failing grades - "not the fun things."

"My relationship with these young children is all positive," she says. "I've felt, quite selfishly, that it's good for the school, that increasing early literacy will help us here. But it's also fun for me."

"It's been wonderful to see them from infants through those terrible twos and threes ... to the point where they really are paying attention to a story," she adds. "What I like best is when they tell me they can't wait to come here to school."

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