When James E. Person came to Loudoun County from Richmond in 1978 to serve as an assistant principal at Loudoun Valley High School in Purcellville, he wasn't quite prepared for the area's rural character and quaintness. Colleagues promised him that the area would grow.

That it did, and then some.

Person, now principal at Park View High School in Sterling, has watched his school reach its capacity of 1,400 students during his eight-year tenure -- and at the end of the month, he is leaving Park View to oversee Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, which is being built to help deal with the county's surging population.

"It's pretty sobering to think when I moved here they kept talking about how this area was going to grow," Person said. "I didn't expect it to grow so exponentially. Now I'm going to a school that in its first year will have 1,300 students and over 1,600 in its second year."

At Park View, Person says he has seen the student body become more culturally diverse, reflecting the county's rapidly growing population. About 30 percent of the students at Park View are minorities -- more than double the proportion five years ago, Person said. He has invited religious leaders from various backgrounds to help staff members become more sensitive to students' needs. Person said he has tried to "build a family" among the staff, students, teachers and parents at the school.

Rarely is Person found behind the desk in his cramped office. Instead, he seems most comfortable in the halls, surrounded by students, asking them whether they passed an exam or how they're doing. They often tease him about his southern accent, as he asks his number one concern, "You're going to get across that graduation line, right?"

He is known to pay attention to the smallest of details. When he learned that one of the students' biggest issues was the lack of stall doors and mirrors in student restrooms, he secured the supplies the next day and had them installed.

Three years ago, when the county sought a school to experiment with longer class periods, Person was the first to try it. It has been well received because it allows more learning time, teachers and students say. And when students approached him with a plan to hold their prom off-campus a few years ago, he approved it, surprising the students.

"He sets the tone for the school without being overbearing," said Chris Forester, an assistant principal. "He's willing to try new things with kids."

Person, 46, received his master's degree from the University of Virginia in 1978 and taught social studies for three years at a Richmond middle school. He spent a total of 13 years as an assistant principal at Loudoun Valley, Park View and Loudoun County high schools before becoming Park View's principal. He describes both jobs as "problem-solver, trouble-shooter and nag."

"It's almost like being a parent," he laughed.

As teachers and students have sent him thank-you letters and thrown parties for him in the last few weeks of school, he says he feels like he's "going off to college." He said his biggest challenge at the new school, which will open in August 2000, will be to "blend everyone" because about 40 percent of the students will be from Leesburg and the rest from Ashburn.

"They will be coming from different places and feel like they've been moved around," Person said. "I've got to make them feel welcomed."

That is what Park View students say he does best.

"He's cool. He's not a mean guy. He's fair," said David Tran, 18, who is graduating this year and says he has spent some time in Person's office. "I'm going to miss him. He's more than a principal, he's a friend."

CAPTION: Parent Dee Jocobus hugs Park View's James E. Person, who will become Stone Bridge High principal, during recent reception for him.