Houston — At J.P. Henderson elementary school, in the shadows of Houston's towering monuments to glass and steel, little Katy Campos is trying to make sense out of America.
Only months removed from El Salvador's war-torn countryside, the wide-eyed first-grader and her classmates from all over Latin America are having their transition to an alien culture smoothed with bilingual instruction.
In Houston's multi-year program, Katy will spend the first year speaking only Spanish. By fourth grade she will be speaking mostly English in a bilingual classroom, or she will have been moved into a regular, all-English classroom.
Houston - with 36,341 students last year who had limited English proficiency (7,000 more than the year before) and who speak 60 languages - has become a laboratory for bilingual experimentation.
Two factors are credited for this say education officials from northern cities. Houston's tax base, undergirded by multinational oil companies, continues to expand making it the only major city increasing its budget consistently faster than inflation over the last five years. That, and the agressive leadership of superintendent of schools, Dr. Billy Reagan.
In Tina Valdez's first-grade class the students speak entirely in Spanish. The six-year-olds clap their hands to count syllables. The students last names are used for practice. Mar-tin-ez. Three claps. Phonetics and syntax are stressed.
''If they can grasp a concept in Spanish, then it is relatively easy for them to carry it over to English. But if you start in English, they are lost before they've even begun,'' Ms. Valdez says.
By the fourth grade some of the children have exited the program and taken their place in all-English-speaking classes. In Maria Barrientos's fourth-grade class, barely a word of Spanish is spoken. But the class is divided into three levels of proficiency. Older children moving into the system present a problem, because their abilities are quite different from those of children who have been in the program four years.
''Here you see the end-product of bilingualism, and there's no question it works,'' says Ms. Barrientos, who strongly support of the program. ''I've been where these kids are. I understand them, I know their fears. Even with the program their chances are limited. Without it they are lost.''
Houston's successful program is an example of what bilingual education is supposed to be but often is not. Despite the success of bilingual programs such as Houston's, opposition to bilingualism nationwide is considerable. The failure of other bilingual programs in other cities has brought calls for a nationwide overhaul of bilingual education.
For the most part, debate centers not on the intent of bilingual education but on the way it is practiced. Critics complain that all too often teachers inadequately trained in the English language are teaching entirely in Spanish, reinforcing the students' native language and failing to teach English altogether.
Opposition has crystallized in several forms. A constitutional amendment was introduced in Congress that would make English the official language of the United States. The amendment contains provisions that would eliminate bilingual ballots and guarantee that bilingual education make the switch over to all-English-speaking instruction at some point.
Several amendments have been introduced to alter fundamentally the 15 -year-old Bilingual Education Act. The changes would broaden the range of instructional approaches schools could use in teaching English-deficient students; increase money to school districts but tie the funds to stricter regulation; and impose a five-year limit on a school district's participation in the government's grant program.
President Reagan himself endorsed effective bilingual education last fall before several Hispanic organizations. His support has yet to be fully articulated, but the President is backing a bill to continue federal funding of such programs, although at a lower level than the $138 million in subsidies that are being spent this year.
The American public's support for bilingual education is widespread, according to a study by a Columbia University research team. Seventy percent of Hispanics and 63 percent of the non-Hispanics polled support bilingual programs for non-English speaking students.
But Hispanics and non-Hispanics disagree on the idea of using bilingualism as a tool for cultural preservation. Only 41 percent of non-Hispanics polled support such language instruction when students already speak English, vs. 67 percent of Hispanics.