An experiment in "mainstreaming" physically handicapped students has garnered Fairfax County's Bush Hill Elementary School the accolade of "A-plus school" from Instructor magazine, one of the nation's leading publications for elementary school teachers.

Behind the school's modest, early 1950s facade is two schools in one: Bush Hill Elementary School and The Bush Hill Center for the Physically Handicapped, which works with 28 handicapped students.

Some have cerebral palsy, some spina bifida, all are mainstreamed -- mixed with the general student population -- as much as possible.

They come in wheelchairs or on crutches, wearing helmets to protect themselves from frequent falls. The other children know what it's all about. They are familiar with the paraphernalia of the handicapped, if only from a one-day orientation.

Bush Hill is one of five county schools that have special programs for the physically handicapped. Two teachers from the general education wing, Mary D. Crane and Mary Ann Peterman, brought the school to the attention of Instructor, said Brian Hull, who heads the center.

"We have worked very hard with the parents and teachers . . . to have a mainstreaming program that was . . . not lip service," said Bush Hill Principal George Fox.

All of the school's students are brought together for lunch, assemblies and field trips. Special education students spend as much time as possible in the general education classes, Hull said. Two of the center's students, according to Hull, are "100 percent mainstreamed," requiring minimal support. Other students' participation ranges from joining the general education students for music and art classes to doing most of their course work in general education classes.

To meet the special needs of its physically handicapped students, Bush Hill offers hydrotherapy, physical, occupational and speech therapy, and a "home living room" for instructing students in how to get along in the outside world.

All students share a gym, computer room and music room, all located in the center, which was added to the original school in 1978.

Whenever new students arrive at Bush Hill, they're given a tour to see how the other half learns: general education students tour the center; special education students visit the general education wing.

Many of the handicapped students come to Bush Hill from elementary schools throughout southern Fairfax County, drawn by the center's programs and the easy access for persons in wheelchairs. One of the center's aims is to getstudents prepared to return to their "base school."

Fox freely admitted that one of the joys of his job is seeing handicapped students "go back to their base school and feel at home" after spending some time at the center.

Mainstreaming as practiced at Bush Hill requires a high degree of cooperation among teachers, parents and administrators. Teachers and staff are divided into several teams, each meeting frequently to discuss the direction of the school and work on any problems they see arising.

Each team looks at issues facing certain grade levels. "We are showing general education teachers that mainstreaming does work," said Hull, noting the example of one physically handicapped sixth grader who cannot write and is assisted in math by a center aide.

"He verbalizes the answers; she writes them down, and he's functioning on grade level very well," Hull said. "He doesn't need the center full time."

In one of the center classrooms, Ellisa Busanet, 8, takes time from writing a composition to talk enthusiastically about her reading, math and social studies classes, going to the library and using a computer at home. Across the room, Mike Staley gets excited talking about the Washington Redskins.

"I've always had a sentimental attachment to Bush Hill," said Superintendent William J. Burkholder, who taught sixth grade there in the mid-'50s. The school, he said, "has been a model of mainstreaming in spite of its small . . . enrollment."