THE vote this month by the teachers' union in Los Angeles to abolish current methods of ``transitional bilingual'' education for that city's 150,000 limited-English-speaking children is just the latest in a series of protests against what is seen by many as clumsy and ineffective education. The New York Times, for example, which serves a city with 86,000 students whose primary language is not English, has endorsed the Los Angeles teachers' action. Cultural and educational tempers are flaring - among both ``English only'' activists and Hispanic coalitions.
Here in a residential Washington neighborhood though, a public elementary school with a student body that is 60 percent Hispanic has quietly been providing a bilingual model that both groups can support.
By Christmas, first-graders at the Oyster School are reading - in both English and Spanish. By third grade, the children are not only fluent in both languages - but are also two grade levels above average and in the 93rd testing percentile of all schoolchildren in the United States (on an all-English test).
Oyster does not use the typical ``transitional bilingual'' approach - in which students are taught in their native language while being given doses of English along the way. Nor does it practice ``total immersion'' - popularized in Canadian public schools, where English-speaking students are ``immersed'' almost wholly in French.
At Oyster, all children learn in two languages from Day 1. It's ``dual immersion'' - 50 percent of instruction is in Spanish, 50 percent in English. Each class has two teachers - one for each language. The goal is bilingualism: Hispanic students are not trying desperately to put their home language behind them. Instead, all students are learning a new language.
``We treat English and Spanish both as foreign languages - and all the kids are in the same boat,'' says Oyster principal Paquita Holland. ``They all struggle together at first.'' (As a result, Oyster children work closely with one another - one reason for the school's success in racial integration.)
Nor is there a trick to the method or pedagogy at Oyster. The subject matter comes directly from the District of Columbia curriculum. Science, math, and social studies may be taught in English one semester or Spanish the next, but there are no special textbooks or techniques - except in reading, where even the youngest students are issued adult textbooks (small print, no pictures) and taken slowly through basic mechanics: phonics, syllables, words. Children are not tested in advance.
``We upset educators who want to turn bilingual into a complicated method,'' says Ms. Holland. ``Bilingual education is a medium, not a methodology. When you do it right, the kids learn quickly.''
``You would think bilingual would be harder,'' said one second-grade teacher. ``But it's easier. The kids are thinking more.''
As fifth-grader Lucia Duncan puts it, ``When you start early, like when you learn to count [in two languages] in kindergarten, it just seems normal after a while.'' Even at the earliest ages, the children do not mix up the languages.
The school - the only one of its kind in the country - runs on an ethic of cheerfulness, backed by a constant emphasis on communication. The 300 students work in what looks like a family atmosphere. Japanese, black, Hispanic, and white children play together gleefully on the playground and become serious in front of computer terminals, where the upper grades write a composition every week. (``If kids ruled the world ...'' was last week's topic - in Spanish.)
The National Advisory and Coordinating Council on Bilingual Education says Oyster's dual immersion program makes it one of three ``best opportunities for integration'' in the nation.
``My daughter is friends with wealthy kids, and the kids of working-class parents,'' says Oyster parent John Merrow. ``I strongly support that.'' Kelsey Merrow, his fifth-grader, adds, ``I think it's special at our school. Everyone tries hard. I'm friends with most of the Spanish kids - it's some of the English kids I don't like.''
In fact, so well do the shared language and culture of Oyster knit the children that it's not until they go to the large, public middle schools that race issues ``hit them between the eyes,'' as Holland describes it. ``They realize, `Hey, the rest of the world really has a problem.'''
The waiting list for Oyster ``goes to 1990,'' said one District of Columbia school official. And it's not unusual for working-class Hispanics to triple up in Washington's expensive Adams-Morgan district apartments - only to move out once their children are accepted. And parent involvement is high.
But the rub is money - the main reason Oyster's dual immersion cannot yet be widely duplicated. With two teachers per class, salary costs are double. Most schools - let alone districts - can't afford that.
Furthermore, even though Oyster has proved successful, it does not qualify for Chapter VII federal funds. (Since Oyster's inception in 1971, it has been underwritten by the school district). Nor would Holland, who was a bilingual official at the United States Department of Education during the Carter administration, take federal money under the current guidelines. ``I've seen Chapter VII in action,'' she says - in schools where children are yanked out of a class labeled Chapter I (disadvantaged), put in a Chapter IV (desegregation) group, and then a Chapter VII (bilingual) class. ``Children in a Chapter I class couldn't remove a pencil to a Chapter VII class, in some schools. I don't want that kind of insanity here. It's not educationally sound.''
The total number of limited-English-speaking children in the US is 4 million, and 3 million of them are Hispanic. Only 4 percent of the $5,524,000 Chapter VII bilingual funding can be used for programs other than ``transitional bilingual'' - the program opposed by the Los Angeles teachers.
As the debate continues, educators expect Congress to discuss allowing more room for alternative programs. The $4.2 billion Chapter I funding is under similar discussion.