With open classrooms, a minimum of structure, flew desks, fewer walls, teaching and an ungraded system, Laurel Ridge Elementary School in Fairfax County is one of the more innovative and unconventional public schools in the Washington area.

It is also one of the more controversial.

One day Stella Clark, the librarian, sat in a corner with the lights turned out, telling ghost stories to a group of children.

Renee Essington, age 8, sat under a table doing problems in her math workbook, and Dean Opstad, 12, and Wayne Wilhelm, 11, rolled dice on the floor as part of an exercise in computational skills. Helen Sloan, one of the teachers, discussed an upcoming snipe hunt with some of her pupils.

"It's like a big child care center. They all have lots of fun, but they don't teach them the basics," says Mateele Rittgers, who took a daughter out of Laurel Ridge a year ago to enroll her in Commonwealth Christian School.

By contrast, Army Maj. Roger Folfe, president of last year's parent-teachers association, says, we have lived in lots of places and had our kids in lots of schools and I would consider Laurel Ridge probably the best."

Since its opening in 1970, Laurel Ridge has been a source of simmering controversy in the Kings Park West subdivision, southeast of Fairfax City. Periodically, that simmer heats into a low boil as it did this spring, when a number of parents voiced complaints that although their children were, indeed, having a good time, they weren't learning enough.

In a number of respects, the dispute at Laurel Ridge mirrors the classic educational debate over the merits of traditional vs. open education and the extent to which schools are responsible for character development as opposed to the acquisition of knowledge.

Its controversies are also part of a nationwide reaction against many of the educational innovations of the 1960s - the questioning of modern mathematics and "relevant" courses - and an increasing trend back to the basics.

Protagonists at Laurel Ridge include the principal, Dr. Robert Marshall, who is deeply committed to the philosophy of open classrooms and a minimum of structure; a minority, but a vocal minority of parents who favor the traditional classroom; and a larger group that likes the open classrooms but wants a little more structure.

"Children like to come to school. Children are happy here and that's what education is all about," says Marshall.

Quoting the school's motto, he adds, "Education is concerned with persons, not atoms of knowledge. Sometimes I say to folks, 'I'm not so interested in pleasing you as I am in pleasing your children.'"

"Where are the desks, where are the books, where is the spelling," says Mrs. Rittgers, who took her daughter out of the school. 'My child was bringing home no papers, and there was no homeword."

"I don't want to go back to the traditional classroom where everybody sits at a desk all day," says Carol Greer, the mother of a 5-year-old boy who attended kindergarten at Laurel Ridge this year.

"But I would prefer more structure. I help out in the classroom and I see so many distraction. I want some order and discipline. I don't want my child to be just a happy person. He has to learn certain basic skills to survive in this world."

As far as pure academic achievement is concerned, Laurel Ridge is comparable to schools with students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, said Donald Lacey, Fairfax County school superintendent for area four, which includes Laurel Ridge.

At the fourth grade level - if Laurel Ridge had grades - students tested at the 74th percentile in reading, the 66th percentile in language, the 71st percentile in mathematics and the 75th percentile in social studies. In percentile rankings, the 50th percentile is the point at which half the students taking a test do better and half do worse.

Lacey did say spelling scores - at the 66th percentile - are below what they should be and that an assessment team from the county will visit the school to determine why.

"We're going to have to do a real self evaluation. It's going to take a great deal of open communication between the school and the community," Lacey said.

While not unique, Laurel Ridge has probably carried the open education concept "to a further degree than any school in the county," said Fairfax School Board member Robert Smith. "You have a large group of parents that are very happy with the open school situation. There is a sizeable number - a minority but still sizable - that is unhappy."

Laurel Ridge is located in a comfortable, upper middle-class neighborhood where 65 per cent of the students' families and another 35 per cent work in government jobs. There is a 30 per cent turnover every year, meaning that every third or fourth year there is virtually an entirely new student body - and a new set of parents.

Thus, old issues stand to resurface with new sets of parents.

Earlier this month, for example, about 270 persons - there are more thatn 1,000 children in the school - packed a PTA meeting - many to complain that there is not enough emphasis on English, grammar, spelling, writing and mathematics; that there is no attempt to develop home study habits and that there are no quiet work areas.

Their concerns echoed opinions voiced when the school first opened in the fall of 1970. Then, as Marshall was explaining the school's motto that "education is concerned with persons, not atoms of knowledge," and Army major said, "Hell, son. You've got it all backwards. You concern youself with the knowledge and we'll take care of the person at home."

Most of the ideas that led to Laurel Ridge were formed in Marshall's mind while with kids, I saw a lot of teachers working as a supervisor in the schools of Memphis, Tenn.

"I saw a lot of teachers working unkindly with kids, I saw a lot of teachers working with kids in a very neutral way. Children were grouped in grades and they were looked upon enmasse. They were very much in a dictatorship.

"I decided that if I wanted to change any of that, I was going to have to get my own school, so I got my Ph. D. so I'd have the right calling card and I opened Laurel Ridge in 1970."

There, there are no classes as such, nor are there grades. Students are assigned to teams where they work at their own speed. Tests have been deemphasized and there is no homework.

"We decided that kids are kids only once. We try to work them while they are in school, but they have other things to do at home.

At school, children meet with teachers in small groups or individually and then are expected to work on their own. There are relatively few desks, tables or chairs and it is not at all unusual to see a group of children sprawled out on the floor doing and exercise in spelling, say, or math.

Signs and placard around the building proclaim the slogan, "Kindness is spoken here."

The idea is still difficult for some parents to swallow.

"I guess what it comes down to basically is that we're sitting in an area of traditional schools with a school that's open," syas PTA president Tim Milligan. "Anything that's new is suspect and many of the parents want to make sure that disciplinary needs are being met at school as they are at home.

"There is more commotion going on than at a normal school. SOme of it is beneficial, but some of it is just commotion," he said.

"The thing that Laurel Ridge strives for is to meet some of the students' individual needs rather than worrying always about reading and writing."

Teachers insist they do stress the basic of reading and writing, although they say many of the parents are unaware of it.

"If we get a kid who's really turned on by sharks, we may let hime spend a couple of days reading about sharks. He learns reading that way too," said Yvonne Knutson, one of the teachers.

With approximately 11 per cent of its neighborhood children enrolled in private school, Laurel Ridge is at about the same level as neighborhoods of similar affluence, County officials said.

Additionally, there are families who transfer children out of the Laurel Ridge district to other public schools and there are people who transfer their children in from out of the district.

Tony Carney, for example, a resident of the Lake Braddock Subdivision, had her son redistricted out of the Laurel Ridge district this year. Along with 30 other Lake Braddock families, she formed a network of cat pools to drive the children back to Laurel Ridge each day.

"My child enjoys school and I liked the program at Laurel Ridge," she said.

Air Force Maj. Chuck Barlow bought a house in Kings Park West, specifically so his children could attend school at Laurel Ridge.

"We school shopped before we house shopped," said Barlow. "We like it here because we fell it gives the children a chance to progress at their own rate and it stresses creativity, which we feel is important. We just didn't want to see our children stuck in a desk in a room 6 to 8 hours a day, 5 days a week."

Barlow has been able to arrange his schedule so he can spend about four hours volunteer time each morning teaching at the school, which is another reason why he likes it.

"This type of program lends itself to participation, which we were looking for," he said.