SUMMERVILLE -- When more than 1,100 students arrive for the first day of the school year at Beech Hill Elementary today, Principal Rene Harris will be making sure everything is running smoothly.

Teachers will be easing children back into the learning world after lazy summer days. Food service workers will be preparing the first day's lunch.

And school counselor Tammy Masopust will be helping out in any way she's needed, while quietly watching for the subtle signs that indicate students might be having problems.

It's Masopust's first year as a school counselor, but her connection to Beech Hill Elementary goes back about seven years. Her son, who is now 12 years old, attended kindergarten at Beech Hill. Masopust was a stay-at-home mom at the time, and volunteered to help in his classroom. She fell in love with the school, the children and the academic environment.

She eventually got a job as a teaching assistant at Beech Hill, then enrolled in a graduate school program for school counselors. Now she's back at the school in a job she's sure will allow her to contribute her best to the community she loves.

Beech Hill is part of suburban Dorchester District 2. About 23,000 students from the district's 20 schools, as well as about 2,350 students from rural Dorchester District 4's five schools, return to the classroom today.

Masopust knows that it takes more than a good classroom teacher for many students to succeed. "If they're not happy and not emotionally healthy, they can have a hard time learning," she said.

School counselors work with students in many ways, she said. They make classroom presentations on topics such as career awareness and study skills. They teach children to manage their time and resolve conflicts.

And they meet one-on-one with those who are facing the big stuff, such as the death of a family member or serious problems at home.

Masopust discovered being a counselor was the role for her when she was working as a teaching assistant helping a group of students who were struggling with their reading skills. She knew that learning the fundamentals of reading was important.

Harris said Masopust is "a natural part of the school community." Her only regret is that she could only offer her a part-time job as a counselor. She just didn't have money in the budget to hire her full-time this year.

Masopust turned down another full-time job so she could work at Beech Hill, Harris said. "It speaks well that someone would do that," she said. "She found her passion."

Masopust had previously held jobs that were related to helping and teaching, she said. But now she knows she's exactly where she's meant to be. "It's where my heart is," she said. "I finally know what I want to do when I grow up."

Dorchester District 2 spokeswoman Pat Raynor said everything is on track for the first day.

Construction is under way to expand three classroom wings and the cafeteria at Ashley Ridge High School. A new elementary school in the Oakbrook area is under construction, but it won't be complete until this time next year.

The district has a back-to-school guide available on its website at www.dorchester2.k12.sc.us.

Dorchester 4 Superintendent Jerry Montjoy said leaders from all of the district's schools sent fliers containing back-to-school information to parents.

And, he said, the district completed renovations at all of its schools over the summer. That's extremely important, he said. "It improves the learning environment."