Kindergarten teacher Jan Ritchie, much like a shepherd without a staff, gathered her small group of students just beyond the steps of Lincoln Elementary School one morning last week, counting off names as the last bus drove off.

"Is Beanie here?" Ritchie asked.

As they'd been doing for the last 15 minutes, the newcomers to Lincoln mostly looked at the ground, fingered their nametags, and said nothing.

Finally, a little blond boy offered this information:

"I saw him get on the bus," said Peter Tucker, most quietly. "He didn't get off."

Ritchie and principal Dr. Tom Woodall took the news in stride.

This was not the first year in which a new student, unsure of what would eventually be familiar routine, forgot to get off the bus.

But aside from some intermittent homesickness in the first grade class, Beanie's absence (the bus driver brought him back after completing her rounds) was the only hitch in getting Lincoln Elementary students back to school.

Each year, Lincoln continues to swing to an old-fashioned beat in a time when consolidation and urban growth swell classrooms and buildings.

"The feeling is . . . like a family," said Mary Paul Jones, whose two oldest daughters went to Lincoln and whose third daughter, Megan, is there now. "I can't see how a child cannot get over any shyness there."

The school defies the modern trend toward change, confusion and plastic wrappers.

It is situated in the middle of Lincoln, a quiet Loudoun County community of several hundred residents.

Tall oaks shade the 10 acres of school grounds, and heavy traffic never rumbles down the main road through town. The two-story brick building was rebuilt in 1926, the year the original 1909 structure burned down.

Classes rarely have more than 30 students and are usually smaller. As former student Thomas Taylor, now in the ninth grade, said, "Your classmates are pretty much going to stay the same the whole time you are there."

So are the teachers, who have all been there since before Woodall became principal 10 years ago. Everyone gets to know everyone.

On opening day last week, the scent of homemade bread wafted from the cafeteria kitchen. Helen Cook was making hamburger and hotdog rolls for the day's lunch, as she has been doing for 23 years, less a few years off when her children were young.

Cook's lunches are legendary and parents often join their children for the midday meal. Many of the school's current students are children of an earlier generation of Cook's fans.

"By the middle of the year, I know what each child likes and doesn't like," said Cook.

"When one of them says, 'I don't want that,' I'll say, 'Why? Your daddy liked it,' or 'your mother liked it,' and they'll just look at me."

Many parents give Woodall a lot of the credit for what several called an unusually strong "sense of community" at the school.

About 40 percent of the parents regularly volunteer time working with teachers and students on special projects.

He has a "real gift for generating a kind of community spirit" at Lincoln, said Henry Taylor, father of third-grader Richard.

Taylor noted that in several dramatic productions performed each year, Woodall finds a way to involve every one of the children.

On opening day, Woodall spent part of the morning greeting each busload of children.

After the bell rang, Woodall's voice came over the public address system in each classroom.

"If you see someone you don't know, go up and introduce yourself and say hi," was part of his welcoming message.

Lincoln and schools like it remain popular, said Woodall, "because they represent a piece of the past to a lot of people."

For people like Christy Tipton, 5, who joined Lincoln Elementary's kindergarten class this year, the school will blend the past with the future.

Asked for her impression on the first day, Christy quietly said, "I think it's going to be good."