When Sherry Distefano asked her sixth-grade class at Bailey's Elementary School in Fairfax County to bring in recipes of meals commonly eaten at home, children produced directions for delicacies such as rellenos de guisquil, tandoori chicken and Somalian rice and rice sauce.

The recipe book Distefano's students put together is just a small illustration of a dramatic evolution in Fairfax County's once homogeneous suburban school system in the last decade.

As reflected in census data released last week, a tide of immigrant families has settled inside the Capital Beltway in communities such as Baileys Crossroads, Annandale and Seven Corners, transforming local classrooms into ethnic mixing bowls with students speaking everything from Spanish and Vietnamese to Urdu and Farsi.

Now as Fairfax officials prepare widespread changes in school boundaries, long-simmering tensions have boiled to the surface.

As a result, the nationally recognized school system finds itself faced with questions that have long troubled many other districts.

How well are schools teaching the children of immigrants? How do English-speaking students fare in classes dominated by peers with other native languages? At what point should school officials juggle boundary lines to balance ethnic diversity? And are some schools in Fairfax being victimized by de facto segregation?

"I really don't know what the answer is," said Wanda Martinson, a PTA leader at Sleepy Hollow Elementary School, where parents are resisting a boundary change that would put some of their children into Bailey's. "It's not a matter of race. It's a matter of language."

The numbers tell the story: At nine schools inside the Beltway, about 40 percent or more of the students are not native English speakers, and demographers project the percentage will increase substantially in the next decade.

As their numbers shrink, many English-speaking parents have complained that boundary changes will harm their children academically. Some have accused school officials of tinkering with borders solely to redistribute language-minority students, while others have charged school officials with not doing enough.

"The question becomes: Do you gerrymander the attendance areas to balance the populations? Do you bus from community to community?" said Area Administrator Stephen Dolinger. "This brings a change for {parents}. They're having a tough time coping with it."

Probably the most contentious boundary dispute involves Bailey's, the most diverse school in Fairfax.

About 87 percent of the 560 students are classified as minorities under federal guidelines, about 81 percent speak one of 28 languages other than English as their first tongue and about 60 percent are poor enough to qualify for discounted or free lunches.

Teachers report that students sometimes arrive at the school without knowing a word of English. Some have never seen a pencil. They come from war zones. Their families are separated by political borders. One girl told teachers that her family emigrated from El Salvador on foot.

In spite of the difficulties many students face, they fare relatively well on standardized tests. Fourth-graders at Bailey's score better than 55 percent of their peers nationally and sixth-graders score better than 68 percent. Last year, the National Council of Teachers of English designated the school as a Center of Excellence for Students at Risk.

"The ones who are outside the school are the ones who are fearful of it," said Principal Carol Franz. "The ones in here are very supportive."

Indeed, parents and teachers are fiercely loyal and bristle at the perception that immigrant children are somehow incapable in American schools.

"They just assume falsely that by having different accents and seeing different faces that {the school is} going to be different," said teacher Kent Buckley-Ess, who tutors colleagues in Spanish. "But it's not."

For the creative teacher, language is not a barrier, said Dorothy Fowler, who teaches first grade.

"You do things physically," she said. "You model things. You act things out. You use peer translators. You don't just write it. You also draw it. You use every faculty you have available."

Too often, people look at newly arrived students for what they do not know rather than what they do, teachers said. "They come in with a lot," said Yolanda Longoria, who works with recent immigrant children at Bailey's. "We just need to have some time to look at it and figure out what they know and how to build on it."

But to build on it properly, some believe there should be more English-speaking role models at the school, and last fall the Bailey's PTA asked school leaders to redraw boundaries to move more English-speaking children into Bailey's from Sleepy Hollow Elementary school, less than three miles west.

But the proposal was scuttled after opposition from the Sleepy Hollow community, where some American-born parents feared their students might be dragged down academically at Bailey's.

"Unfortunately, Bailey's already in the view of many parents is over the edge in balance," said Mary Margaret Hammond, who has a child at Sleepy Hollow Elementary, where the language-minority population is about 29 percent. "It becomes imbalanced if there's such a large population in need of special programs that there isn't enough of a community left to support the core and advanced programs."

Martinson, who has two children at Sleepy Hollow, said she sympathized with Bailey's, but would prefer to bus students to and from schools with fewer minorities outside the Beltway to achieve better balance. "It's just not a healthy education situation when the ESL {English as second language} percentage climbs above a certain number," she said.

The School Board will review options for boundary changes on Feb. 7 and, after public hearings Feb. 25 and 26, plans to vote on March 7.

If the Bailey's PTA is unsuccessful in winning boundary adjustments, its leaders have enlisted the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, and say they may sue the county for gerrymandering the boundaries and keeping the school effectively segregated.

"We like the fact that we're a culturally diverse school," said PTA President Richard Kurin, who teaches international studies at Johns Hopkins University and directs folklife programs for the Smithsonian Institution. "My kid comes home having learned about Vietnamese and Cambodian art, and that's good."

But balance is necessary, he said. "If my kid is going to learn Spanish, it's nice to have Spanish-speaking kids around. The same thing the other way. If we have Vietnamese- or Cambodian-speaking kids trying to learn English, you should have English-speaking kids around."

Irma Ortiz, director of a community group known as the Hispanic Committee, agreed, saying that immigrant children need English-speaking peers to help them assimilate into American society.

Other possible solutions have been discussed, such as locating special academic programs at Bailey's to lure more English-speaking students to the school.

Another much-talked-about option would "pair" Bailey's with another school like Sleepy Hollow or Belvedere, creating one large attendance area with kindergartners through second-graders attending one school and third- through fifth-graders attending the other.

School officials said their decisions on boundaries rest more on the best use of facilities than on socioeconomic distribution. But some lamented privately that sending English-speaking Sleepy Hollow students to Bailey's would only exacerbate white flight to private schools.

Some community leaders said that the school system must take a broader look at the issue. "Changing boundaries is not a good enough solution," said Kay Frame, Sleepy Hollow's PTA president. "It's a Band-Aid."

------ HOW ENROLLMENT WOULD CHANGE -------

-AT FOUR FAIRFAX COUNTY ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS

.....................1991-92..........1995-96.........% Minority

.....................Enrollment.......Enrollment......Without

.....................Without..........Without.........Change/With

.....................Change/With......Change/With.....Change

.....................Change...........Change................

SCHOOL

Sleepy Hollow

(Capacity: 316).......550/331..........617/384......44%/39%

Beech Tree

(Capacity: 426).......355/398..........367/411......34%/44%

Parklawn

(Capacity: 411).......583/418..........639/427......58%/56%

Belvedere

(Capacity: 614).......470/634..........534/738......34%/38%

Bailey's

No Change Proposed.......560...............NA...........87%

SOURCE: Fairfax County Public Schools