Communication problems, it seems, are not limited solely to those in the Fairfax County school system learning English as their second language. Officials for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) and Fairfax County are not always successful at understanding each other, either.

According to Fairfax County School Supt. S. John Davis, HEW either is going to force the school system to spend $5 million to change its methods of teaching English to foreignborn students, or withdraw up to $20 million in U.S. aid if it fails to do so.

According to Ronald Gilliam, deputy director of the Office of Civil Rights for HEW in Philadelphia, the situation is not nearly so serious.

"We don't think their program is adequate based on the information we're received so far," Gilliam said. "But we're certainly willing to see what they have to offer."

The possibility of withdrawing federal funds, Gilliam said, "hadn't even entered our minds."

The ruckus was first raised when Davis received a letter from HEW officials that said they regretted to inform Fairfax that "we will be unable to render final approval of the county's plan for teaching English to its foreign-born students because the plan as submitted as not sufficiently complete."

According to Davis, the difference between HEW's idea of a "sufficiently complete" plan for teaching English and that of the county's essentially is a philosophical one.

"They want us to go into a bilingial program," Davis said. "But the research shows that youngters learn English faster in an English-as-a-second-language (ESL) programs."

In the ESL program foreign-born students are taught English in English regardless of their native tongue. Under a bilingual program, foreign-born students learn not only English but other classroom subjects in their native tongue to insure that they are getting an education equal to native-born students.

According to Davis, there are 3,645 Fairfax students for whome English is a second language. There also are 22 languages in which 20 or more county students are fluent. It would cost $3 million to $5 million, Davis said, for Fairfax County to provide a bilingual faculty for these students and he raised the spectre of cross-county busing in order to transport all students speaking each particular language to the school containing a teacher fluent in that language.

According to Gilliam, HEW has no idea whether Fairfax County is in compliance with its rules on teaching English to the foreign born, because the county has not sent the department's Office of Civil Rights enough evidence on which to make an evaluation.

"We have (instructional) material translated into 10 different languages," Davis said. "We sent them a few samples. Now I'm tempted to load up an entire truck with the material we have translated and send it all to them."

According to the HEW letter, Fairfax County is supposed to submit revised plan to the Office of Civil Rights within the next month. Nothing doing, Davis said.

Davis said he plans to consult the county school board's attorney before taking any further action. "I don't understand why the burden of proof should be on our shoulders," Davis said. "It's apparent to me we have a philosophical difference and we are not prepared to meet their request in that amount of time."

"We're very surprised by all this," Gilliam said somewhat plaintively.

"We're certainly willing to negotiate. I just wish they'd talk to us about it."