Of the 15 guidance counselors the Loudoun County school system added to its counseling staff in the last two years, about one-third of them were hired from Berkeley County, the first county in West Virginia to extend its counseling program into elementary schools and the only growing public school system in that state.
Now that the head of guidance counseling in Loudoun, Bruce Holland, is returning to North Carolina after overseeing the program's expansion, his successor arrives July 2 -- from Berkeley County.
Janice Christopher, assistant superintendent in Berkeley for five years and director of pupil services there for 12 years before that, says she wanted to take on a bigger challenge without losing Berkeley's ahead-of-its-time commitment to counseling.
"I didn't end up in Loudoun by chance," she said in an interview last week in the Martinsburg office she is abandoning. "If I moved, I wanted to go into a very positive, upbeat environment.
"Loudoun has so much more available to compensate its staff and provide professional opportunities than a lot of systems have. It's very inviting. And the overall climate is progressive. I thought it would be fun to be part of that."
Christopher is not unmindful that the Loudoun County School Board, like Berkeley's, has been to the budget wars and come through scathed, cutting the superintendent's proposed $97 million budget by $4.5 million after some unfriendly back-and-forths with the Board of Supervisors.
But Christopher is coming from a state where teachers staged their first statewide strike last year in the face of budget shortfalls, where a special legislative session has been called in August to deal with the education crisis.
Berkeley County, she points out, has 10,400 students and a $35 million budget; Loudoun has about 15,000 students and a $92 million budget, give or take. She is aware that the Loudoun schools continue to fight for their share of constricting county and state funds -- but from her vantage point, the cup looks half-full rather than half-empty.
Christopher was also looking for a change that would lessen the trauma of leaving the place where she has spent her entire career. She is exchanging a community of 50,000 people for one of 90,000 on the other side of the mountain, and she will commute the 60-plus miles from Martinsburg until family exigencies sort themselves out.
Her husband, Wendell, is a middle school principal in Berkeley County, and they have two children, Heidi, 16, and Kip, 14, in school there.
"They're really neat kids, and if we choose to make a change, they're willing," Christopher said. Heidi, a high school junior, "told me, 'It's only two years for me, and you're talking about the rest of your life.' I said, 'It would be so much easier if you'd be ugly about this.' "
Christopher, a native West Virginian, became an educator because she saw it as one of the three career choices for women (the other two were nursing and clerical work) when she graduated from high school in 1962. She is well satisfied with her choice, she said, "but I sometimes laugh at myself for the options I allowed myself."
Christopher received her bachelor's and master's degrees from West Virginia University in Morgantown and her doctorate from Virginia Tech. Her formal training is in counseling, and she spent four years as a guidance counselor in Berkeley County high schools before becoming an administrator..
(She says management may have come more easily to her for having grown up a tomboy with one sister and four brothers. "They were always kind enough to include me in what they did," she said, so that being the only female member of the Rotary Club for a year or so gave her no pause at all.)
When she entered the field, guidance counseling was mostly for high school students. "The perception was let's help kids find out what their aptitudes are, select the right colleges and careers, help get them the financial aid." In the mid-'70s, the emphasis slowly began to shift to children's developmental problems "and the importance of intervention."
Berkeley County extended counseling from the upper grades into elementary schools in the early 1980s. Loudoun County did so in 1988, a year before grade-school counseling programs would become mandatory in Virginia, with a pilot program in six of the county's 21 elementary schools.
The idea in the lower grades, according to a report Holland presented to the Loudoun School Board two weeks ago, is to help children adjust to school and classmates and to determine when family and personal problems may be getting in the way. "The little folks are looking for a sense of security," Christopher said. "Sometimes, with the difficulties that many families are experiencing, those difficulties get so much attention that the children's needs don't get tended to."
Because of a vacancy and the West Virginia budget crunch, Christopher spent a recent week back in the trenches and found herself counseling a fourth-grade student who had been in six foster homes in five months while his mother was in jail for drug distribution. "Until children know where they're going to sleep tonight," she said, "they may not be able to concentrate on math."
Christopher said she is particularly impressed with Loudoun County's group counseling for students, including those whose parents are divorcing. ("It helps to know you're not the only one. It gives them coping skills.")
But she says her job is not crisis-driven. Counselors go into grade-school classrooms "to help all children understand basic values: fairness, honesty, treating others with dignity, how to resolve a conflict. These are things they need to succeed in school or on the playground or on the job."
In middle school, the crux of the matter is identity -- "who they are, what's important to them. They're undergoing so much change. One day they're happy as a lark, the next they're depressed. One of the counselor's jobs is to persuade parents that their child is not goofy," while convincing the child of the same thing.
High school counseling still emphasizes the practical decisions that influence who the child will become -- what courses to take, whether to go to college, what career to aspire to, what job to apply for. At the same time, she said, the personal issues become more complicated, including sexuality, substance abuse, suicide prevention.
"We forget sometimes about all of the issues they're dealing with," Christopher said.