All across the state, educators want to know: What are they doing in Kent County schools?

The tiny, rural Eastern Shore district -- where two of five children come from poor homes and where half the high school graduates don't continue to college -- emerged last week with the highest scores on Maryland's increasingly influential test of student skills.

State officials say it's no fluke: Since the exams began in 1993, Kent County has steadily improved. Now, it has surpassed wealthy school districts such as Montgomery and Howard counties that have long been considered among the best in the nation.

Yet for those trying to imitate it, the secret of Kent's success is elusive. "There is no one thing," says Superintendent Lorraine Costella.

On one hand, Kent County was an early and eager convert to the latest teaching techniques that emphasize critical thinking and problem-solving. Classrooms here buzz with the new and unconventional -- from art classes where grade-schoolers outline the theoretical "criteria" for elves before drawing Santa's little helpers, to piano lessons for pre-kindergartners.

Yet Kent seems also to have made gains through an older way of doing things: Small schools. Small classes. And a small-town atmosphere, where volunteer moms and grandfathers lend a hand in almost every room, and local businesses pitch in to build the playground.

Either way, Kent County's underdog success is serving a jolt to systems that have lagged behind on the high-stakes Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.

"If they can do it there, we can do it here," said Brian Porter, spokesman for the Montgomery school system. "We should get off our lofty mantel and start looking around for the best practices outside our own borders."

At first glance, Kent County seems an unlikely incubator for educational innovation. The windswept peninsula jutting into the Chesapeake Bay is a long commute from the nearest cities, Annapolis and Wilmington. Much of the population is elderly; school enrollment is just under 3,000 and barely growing, with many of the children coming from farm or factory families that have been in the community for generations.

At the first official MSPAP testing in 1993, Kent posted mediocre scores. But things quickly changed. Many give credit to the superintendent, Costella, who arrived in 1994. While other educators were playing down the MSPAP, Costella was an early believer.

The exam, she argues, is a fair and crucial measure of whether elementary and middle school children are mastering key analytical and problem-solving skills in addition to the facts and know-how that have always made up the traditional curriculum.

"The business community taught us that we have students who know the basics of punctuation, the basics of grammar, but if they had to sit down and write a letter in a real-world situation, they couldn't," Costella said.

"We can't teach them all the information they will need. But we can teach them how to access information, how to use information."

Costella and her principals say they scoured test score data to determine the weaknesses of their old teaching approaches and to zero in on new techniques. Writing skills, they determined, were one missing link.

So today, writing is a major part of every class. In Karen Rasor's math classroom at Worton Elementary, her third-graders write up lists of things they can buy at a local department store. As in the old days, they have to solve word problems involving how much of a given item they can buy for $10.

The difference: First, they have to write their own word problem.

A mischievous blond girl turns to the boy sitting next to her. "I'm going to write, `Greg went to the store and bought a camera and a Barbie'!"

"No, I didn't!" Greg cries.

The math-writing blend also hints to an interdisciplinary approach that carries across to all other subjects. At Rock Hall Elementary, Stacey Baker teaches language arts and social studies, while Donna Bedell teaches math and science.

"But whatever we teach, we do together," Bedell explains. "If she's teaching legends, I find out what animals they're reading about in the legends, and I teach those in science. Kids after a while can't distinguish whether they're in math, science or reading."

But for all the new techniques, Kent has also invested in its schools to a greater extent than many districts. Despite its modest means, Kent ranks third in the state for per-pupil spending. In recent years, that money has helped fund Costella's push for smaller class sizes -- kindergartens now have about 18 students, while first and second grade average about 20.

Kent also provides a range of after-school tutoring and summer school programs for struggling students starting in the early elementary years -- a comprehensive intervention program that state officials are now hoping to replicate across Maryland.

The payoff: Since its mediocre MSPAP start, Kent has zoomed up the charts. Its fifth- and eighth-graders rank comparably to those in other top school systems such as Howard and Montgomery counties, where slightly more than half the students in those grades pass the exams.

But no other age group in any other part of the state comes close to the performance of Kent third-graders. This year, 75.6 percent of them passed the exams -- well above the state's ambitious goal of 70 percent, which still remains far out of reach for even the best school systems.

Rock Hall Elementary ranked as one of the top 10 schools in the state this year for the second time in a row, despite the fact that nearly 60 percent of its children live in poverty.

But can the success of Kent County translate to other school districts? Many educators are quick to point out that its tiny size and small-town roots may be as much a blessing as a detriment.

"Montgomery County has more staff than Kent County has students," notes Mark Moody, an assistant state superintendent of schools. In a small system, it's easier for administrators to spread new techniques and share new philosophies about teaching.

While Kent County's student body is racially diverse, with a higher-than-average rate of poverty, it has almost none of the foreign-speaking children that pose such a challenge to Montgomery or Prince George's schools. And families in Kent are far less likely to move around, pulling their children in and out of different schools.

Teachers, too, tend to be rooted in the community and less likely to move off in search of better-paying jobs in wealthy suburbs. Thus, the Kent teaching staff is somewhat more experienced than most others.

And in a small town, schools still hold a strong place at the center of community life. At Rock Hall Elementary, one teacher had all her students' parents to her home one evening at the beginning of the school year. This week, MSPAP scores were the talk of town, with Worton parents rooting for their school to surpass Rock Hall.

Kitty Neff, the mother of a Worton second-grader, helped organize volunteers in her son's class last year -- the fact that she worked the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift at work left her mornings free. Almost every day, someone's parent managed to be there, to help keep order in the classroom or tutor a struggling child in a quiet corner.

"The kids get comfortable with you, and they get to know you," she said. "It does help to give that extra one-on-one attention."