At the corner of 16th and Irving streets NW, 160 teen-agers and a handful of adults are demonstrating a truth that many in this nation seem to fail to realize: Students who can speak languages other than English are a national opportunity, not a national burden.

There are 3.6 million such students around the country -- many born here, many born elsewhere. They have links to nearly every culture and flag in the world. They are our ticket to survival as a political and economic power in an increasingly aware, interdependent and complex world.

As they enter our educational institutions, they are stamped "non-English-speaking" and, as part of the initiation rite, their cultural umbilical cords are snipped, wittingly or unwittingly, by the school system.

By stripping them immediately of their language and culture, educational bureaucrats, teachers and administrators don't have to worry about competition from multicultural professionals. They don't have to tax themselves distinguishing between cultural loyalties and political allegiances.

They can discuss "our bilingual problem" and blame the children who speak limited English for the fact that more than half of them fail to graduate from high school.

What's happening at 16th and Irving deserves attention. It's the site of the District's multicultural high school, a joint project of the D.C. school system and SER -- Jobs for Progress Inc., an employment and job-training agency. Totally funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, it's the only school in the nation to combine the orientations of two educational concepts: the curriculum is career-oriented, and bilingual instruction is used. Other distinctive elements are that enrollment is voluntary and most of the 160 students come directly from schools in other countries and arrive in their middle or late teens, well past the ideal age for language learning.

The school opened in February 1980 and, in accordance with federal guidelines, 80 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged.

Seventy percent of its students, representing about 18 countries, are Hispanic. The remaining 30 percent are mostly Asian (from Cambodia and Vietnam), African (from Zambia, Ethiopia and Somalia) and Afro-American.

The Afro-Americans, who make up 10 percent of the student body, enter speaking only English. Some want to attend because they have the opportunity to learn another language and about other cultures. Others want the individualized attention and career counseling.

The remaining 90 percent of the students speak little or no English.

The school's 12 teachers each speak at least two languages. Students who do not have command of English are given intensive instruction in it for one of two periods a day. They also take courses such as math and science in bilingual classrooms where their native language is used extensively.

In startling contrast to national dropout rates, which range up to 80 percent for limited-English-speaking students, fewer than a half dozen quit the multicultural school in its first year, in spite of the fact that the school initially attracted many dropouts.

Few bilingual schools in the United States have been in operation long enough to provide the kind of long-term "proof" that the educational and political systems demand of innovators, but schools in Brownsville, Tex., and Brooklyn, N.Y., are gaining attention because of their students' academic progress.

At the District's multicultural school, what might best be described as a global education is provided. Art classes show relationships among Latin American, African, Asian and European techniques and craftsmanship. In journalism, the press around the world is compared. A U.S. literature course draws on authors from ethnic and racial minorities. History is not viewed only from the traditional, narrow, Anglo-Saxon perspective. On a daily basis, the students discuss their ancestors' roles, too.

In several visits to the sparse campus, I have yet to encounter a student who didn't express a sense of pride inthe school and a feeling that he or she played a role in shaping the school's program and policies. Two students sit on the 15-member advisory board that reviews and sometimes establishes policies and projects.

The whole value structure is supportive of cultural differences. It's not the melting pot; instead, it's a new American salad, with accents to enrich it, not to shred and divide it. Negative peer pressures don't inhibit learning or destroy self-esteem. Students aren't judged solely on their ability to perform in English.

The school was conceived and developed locally by Principal Maria Tukeva and other school system officials in consultation with educators and representatives of community organizations and businesses.

What is happening at the District multicultural school could happen almost anywhere in the United States if educational systems were willing to admit past failures and share a little power.

The student resource exists.

To ignore -- or worse, to destroy -- so much young and vital human energy is hardly in the national interest. In fact, it's downright unpatriotic.