Let me be with the children, that's where I belong," Esther Eisenhower said last week as she grabbed the elbow of a photographer and steered him through the halls of Woodburn Elementary School in Fairfax County.

"The little ones -- I especially love the little ones."

Esther Eisenhower is the energetic language teacher turned administrator who mastermnded and now supervises the county's English as a Second Language (ESL) Program.

The program is designed to teach English to the rapidly growing number of students in the county whose native language is not English.

Eisenhower and other school officials have set a major goal for the program: Intorduce students to English immediately, so they can learn the language quickly and join regular classes as soon as possible.

In the process, Eisenhower has gained the loyalty of many of her co-workers -- several are giving up vacation time this week to get Fairfax County to conform to its standards.

The major complaint of the federal government is that the Fairfax program instructs non-English-speaking students without teaching them in their own language.

Translators are available upon request. They aid parents registering their children in school, help teachers write notes to parents and converse with students when an urgent situation arises. Other than that, studies are conducted in English.

When the Fairfax program started four years ago, it included 400 students. Today that number stands at 2,700, "and growing."

More than 50 languages are spoken, with Spanish, Korean and Vietnamese being predominant. Of the students now in the program, 575 speak Spanish as their native tongue; 550 speak Korean and 510 speak Vietnamese. Other languages range from Arabic (the native language of 114 students), Chinese (117 students) and Urdu (69 students) to Dutch (16 students and Icelandic (one student).

School officials estimate that about 10 percent of the foreign students come from diplomatic families. ESL children remain in the program an average of one or two years.

The Fairfax concept is one of "total immersion" in English. Children are placed in a class with other foreign students who have a roughly the same English abilities and with a teacher who speaks only English. In the beginning, students spend all day in ESL. As their knowledge of English sharpens, the students spend less time in ESL classes and more time in regular classrooms.

In basic ESL classes teachers hold up objects and teach the children their English names. The children draw, play simple games and learn the alphabet and numbers -- all in English.

"The classes are lively," says Eisenhower. "You'll rarely see the children sitting at desks for more than 15 minutes at a time."

In the advanced classes -- when students spend most of the day in regular schoolrooms -- the ESL teachers concentrate on vocabulary which will prepare the children for their school activities.

"I go to their other teachers and find out what they will be studying during the next couple of weeks," says Pam Latt, an ESL teacher at Kilmer Intermediate School. "We then work on that vocabulry so when the subjects are being taught, they can understand what's going on in class.

"For instance, if they are learning fractions in math class I teach them vocabulary involving fractions. If the gym class will be playing vollyball I teach the kids all the words they are likely to hear during a game.

"It lets them take part in things more fully."

ESL, however, is just one of several educational philosophies designed to help school systems cope with a nationwide influx of foreign-born students.

Billingual education -- the program endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education -- is another.

Since the inception of ESL four years ago, Fairfax County school administrators have engaged in sporadic sparring matches with the federal government over methodology.

The government contends that children should be taught in their native language until their English impoves sufficiently to move into regular classrooms.

In 1974 case Lau vs. Nichols, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school systems must provide all children with an equal education and where children do not speak English: ". . . the board of education be directed to apply its expertise to the problem and rectify the situation. . ."

In the six years since then, government agencies have defined and redefined exactly how shcool systems can provide that equal education.

In guidelines published in 1975 by the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, schools were urged to develop and maintain "all the necessary skills in the student's native language and culture while introducing, maintaining and developing all the necessary skills in the second language and culture."

This spring, the federal government proposed new regulations which have not yet been made public.

But several school adminstrators obtained copies of the proposed changes, and as news of the plans spread, shock waves were sent through the school communities that had not adotped totally bilingual programs.

Among other things, the proposal would require bilingual education for anytime a group of 20 or more children speak the same language, tighten the requirements for returning students to regular classrooms, provide for the hiring of non-certified teachers if foreign-speaking teachers cannot be found and remove the rights of parents to take their children out of bilingual programs and place them in regular classroom.

Eisenhower, and other Fairfax County officials, consider the proposal more than a tall order: They say it is a near impossibility.

Critics of the federal regulations say the new rules are the result of pressure from only one segment of American society, primarily Hispanic groups, and do not allow enough flexibility for school systems such as Fairfaix, where many foreign languages are spoken.

Eisenhower contends that the regulations, designed to improve education for foreign-born students, could wind up doing just the opposite. For example, she says, in trying to meet the requirements some school systems have hired teachers just because they are fluent in another language -- not because they are good teachers.

"We try to recruit teachers who speak another language," Eisenhower says."But that is secondary to whether they are certified by the state and whether they meet Fairfax County standards as teachers."

Critics of bilingual programs do not argue with the contention that various ethnic and cultural beliefs should be preserved. But they contend, it is crucial for students to be proficient in the national language of this country, and students in bilingual programs simply don't learn English as quickly or as well as students who are in ESL programs.

"How can they pass (college board exams) and how can they get jobs when they can't speak English very well?" asks one school administrator.

"It doesn't matter that they are A students in their native language, that doesn't help them when they get out of school."

A study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1977 bears out the charges that students in bilingual courses do not learn English as well as their counterparts in ESL courses.

Fairfax is not alone in its contention that the new regulations -- if implemented -- would be a nightmare.

Representatives from a dozen school districts around the nation are scheduled to meet this week with representatives of the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights in an attempt to persuade federal officials to rescind the regulations.

"The first year we'd see our enrollment double," says John Whither, director of bilingual education for the school system of Portland, Ore., in describing his criticism of the proposed regulations. "The second year, because the students would not be allowed to leave the program, we'd see enrollment triple. Where is the money for all this?"

Ironally, a study conducted this year by the Fairfax schools shows Fairfax ESL students to be achieving well above the national average for students in bilingual programs. The study also concluded that ESL students are working almost on par with native-born American students.

"I challenge the federal government, or anybody, to show me a program where children are learning more than in Fairfax County," says Eisenhower. "You cannot legislate a prototype of something that will work everywhere."

Eisenhower points to charts showing that in Fairfax County, ESL students are involved in all school activities from sports, student government and band to the honor roll -- proof she says, that ESL helps children join the mainstream of American society quickly.

To demonstrate the merits of the Fairfax program, Eisenhower has invited representatives of the government to visit the school system July 15. She also vows to "go after" federal funds which Fairfax has been denied because ESL does not meet government standards for the education of non-English speaking students.

Costs for Fairfax County's ESL program are expected to run "conservatively" at $1.5 million next year. Some of those costs could be offset if Fairfax were granted Title VII federal funds -- monies reserved for school systems with bilingual programs.

"We don't feel these are the federal government's children," Eisenhower says, "They are our children.

"They go to our churches, live in our neighborhoods -- they fall in love with our children.

"We want to educate them the best way we know how."