Walk into the foreign-language class area at Osbourn Park High School near Manassas and you might think you had stumbled into the Tower of Babel.

To the right, a teacher is reeling off sentences in Spanish; to the left, one hears "Achtung" and directions being given in crisp German; straight ahead, a French teacher is explaining that the number "90" is "quatre-vingt dix."

And in the background is the sound of a film on the Danube, complete with waltz music.

Such is life in the open classrooms of four Prince William County high schools, where all students -- about 9,850 -- take their math, social studies, English and foreign-language courses in "pods."

Each subject area has a pod consisting of eight three-sided spaces clustered around an enclosed planning area for teachers. Students may be enrolled in one class, but they can hear -- and often see -- what's happening in two or three others.

Science, arts and vocational education are taught in enclosed classrooms.

As today's high school students are being asked to take more academic courses and perform better on more and more standardized tests, many educators, parents and even students have concluded that the open classrooms built during the educationally "hip" 1960s and early '70s actually hinder achievement.

Prince William County, which with 39,100 students is Virginia's fourth largest school district, is one of only two suburban Washington school systems with a large proportion of schools built on the "open" plan and not yet modified. In addition to the four high schools, four of the county's 33 elementary schools, serving about 2,350 students, have open classrooms.

About 18 percent of the schools in Prince George's County have some open classrooms, but they are "not now an issue," according to schools spokesman Brian Porter. The District has 21 open-plan schools, according to an administrator.

Prince William County is unique, however, in that it is the only local school system with open classrooms in most of its high schools.

At a meeting this fall between student government representatives and the county School Board, students from Woodbridge, Gar-Field, Osbourn Park and Stonewall Jackson high schools, all of which have open classrooms, said one of the board's priorities should be erecting walls and hanging doors in the open spaces.

"I'm in French class, and I know more about the Latin class across the hallway," Son Hong of Stonewall Jackson told the board.

When Superintendent of Schools Edward L. Kelly presents his Capital Improvements Plan early next month, enclosing the open space is likely to be part of it.

"We will give a lot of attention" to enclosing open classrooms, but "there won't be enough money to close all of them" at once, he said recently. Instead, Kelly predicted that enclosures will be phased in over several years.

Championed by educators a generation ago, when team teaching, learning centers and freedom of movement among students were popular, "openness" in school construction has proved a costly legacy for many districts.

Last year when Prince William County commissioned a study on closing its open classrooms, estimates were that it would cost $3.4 million just to put up partitions in the eight schools. Administrators reckoned that permanent soundproof dividing walls and newly aligned electrical and heating and cooling systems would cost almost $13 million.

Several local school districts have spent considerable sums -- exact numbers are hard to pin down -- closing open-plan buildings that cost millions to construct in the first place.

In Fairfax County, "a lot of partitioning has been installed," said Alton Hlavin, assistant superintendent for facilities. Since 1974, the county has built no schools on the open plan, and there are no longer any completely open classrooms in the 13 buildings originally constructed to include them, he said. "All of them have been partially or totally closed."

Hlavin estimated that the costs of modification have run into the "hundreds of thousands of dollars."

In Prince George's County, $39,000 was spent last summer just to erect temporary folding walls at one school, according to an administrator.

In Arlington, each of the 10 elementary schools built with or remodeled to include open space has been enclosed, according to Tom Weber, assistant superintendent of facilities and operations. And the one high school that was remodeled to provide some open space has been returned to a closed plan, he said.

Four years ago, Montgomery County finished putting up walls in most of the 21 schools built without them during the 1970s. There are only three schools, with a combined enrollment of 1,230, where classrooms are open, said William Wilder, director of the department of school facilities.

The open classroom concept "just didn't work. It wasn't accepted by the community or by the teaching staff" in most areas, Fairfax County's Hlavin said.

In Prince William, there seems to be more dissatisfaction with open classrooms on the high school level than the elementary. Although a number of parents question their efficacy, many elementary school teachers have learned to use open space to advantage, according to Principal Daniel Bennett at Sudley Elementary School, an open school near Manassas.

"The parents seem more concerned than the teachers," Bennett said.

"I think there are a lot of elementary school children who just can't take it {open space}," said Jill LeTourneau, president of the Prince William County Parent-Teacher Coalition.

In county high schools, open classrooms are almost universally unpopular with teachers and administrators, but not necessarily with students. While student government representatives overwhelmingly deplored open classrooms to the School Board, a recent spot survey in a senior English class at Osbourn Park yielded mostly positive attitudes.

"I like them. You don't feel so boxed in," said Suzanne Miller.

"It's a more friendly atmosphere," added Todd Patnodes.

But Kim Lanane, their teacher, who is new to her profession, said she "hates" the open space.

"My classes tend to be casual and louder and therefore disturbing to other classes," she said. "I can't do a lot of the projects I want to. I can't close the door and make noise."

Some teachers say that students who sit nearest the outer edge of the open space are easily distracted by what goes on behind them, and that their grades often suffer. Other teachers complain that it's hard to hold class discussions without disturbing nearby groups.

"And a substitute {teacher} in the area is the kiss of death," said English teacher Posey Hall. "It can get pretty zoo-y."

But Shelley Weber, head of Osbourn Park's mathematics department, likes the openness. "It makes the teachers interact with each other," she said, acknowledging that she is in the minority on the faculty.

Roger Dallek, principal of Gar-Field, says he thinks his faculty would choose enclosing classrooms over any other physical change to the school -- "over a new track, a new air conditioning system, over anything else I can think of."

"We just marvel at these kids," said Paul Tiscornia, assistant principal at Osbourn Park. "They do so well and make such good grades. You just wonder how much learning {the open space} is blocking, how much better they would do if the classrooms were enclosed."