A visitor to Arlington Traditional School notices the silence first. Even the youngest students are taught that there is a time to play and a time to sit quietly and listen to the teacher.

In Lorraine Gandy's kindergarten class, the 5-year-olds laugh and clap as they practice the L sound. After saying, "Leo the Lion leaps long," they take a running leap across the room. But when the class gathers around Gandy to work on letter sounds, all eyes are on her.

"I like how the teachers can really enforce the rules and also make learning fun," said fifth-grader Nicholas Birasa, 10.

It is that image of high standards, discipline and excellent teachers that has made admission to the 21-year-old magnet school so competitive and led to a legal battle playing out in federal courtrooms. A federal appeals court panel in Richmond ruled last month that an admissions system used at Arlington Traditional--a lottery weighted in favor of black and Hispanic applicants--is unconstitutional.

The county School Board has asked the panel to rehear arguments in the case. But many Arlington parents say the board is overlooking a better option.

"They could start a whole new school with the demand," said Janet MacLaughlin, who has children at Arlington Traditional in grades five and three and kindergarten. "They ought to replicate the program at each neighborhood school."

School officials say it's not that simple. At most neighborhood schools, no consensus exists for such a change, they say. And in any case, they argue, Arlington Traditional's popularity isn't based on a particular curriculum or set of rules but on something far less tangible that is hard to duplicate.

The debate in Arlington raises the question of what makes a school "traditional" and whether that label is being used with consistency. In the Washington area and nationwide, more and more elementary schools claim to have adopted a traditional or basic approach centered on math drills, phonics instruction, a strict dress code and high expectations for success.

The lure of such programs reflects a growing parental distrust of newer educational ideas such as team teaching, open classrooms and "whole language" reading instruction, education analysts say.

The D.C. school system has several neighborhood schools that have adopted uniforms, phonics and strict behavior standards. Prince George's County has four "traditional/classical academy" magnet programs that have been in place for more than 10 years.

Prince William County plans to open a traditional school--a countywide magnet school--next fall. Several Fairfax County schools call themselves basic or "core-knowledge" schools, offering a curriculum with specific guidelines on what students must master.

Arlington Traditional has many of those features. The school stresses phonics, daily homework and Friday assemblies, and parents receive a folder with a summary of their child's behavior and progress every week.

The school's reputation, already high, was enhanced when it was one of only a few in the state to meet state bench marks on the Virginia Standards of Learning exams the first time they were given. For the current school year, 244 applicants competed for 69 kindergarten slots.

The school plans to increase its enrollment from 350 students to 450 within three years. And some parts of Arlington Traditional's program have spread to neighborhood schools in Arlington County, such as the weekly student progress reports and classrooms with doors that can be closed to eliminate distractions.

But a key part of Arlington Traditional's success cannot be cloned, School Board members say.

Those who make the effort of learning about the school and trying to get their child enrolled already care deeply about education--and their involvement in their child's schooling reinforces what is happening in class, officials say.

To create another Arlington Traditional, "you'd have to replicate a 20-year tradition," said School Board member Elaine S. Furlow. "You can't just dictate to any 300 people that you meet, 'I want you to be involved.'

"Arlington Traditional is a very good example of what you want a school to be. But people are thinking there's just some dramatically different curriculum, and that's not the case."

Despite the claims of Arlington officials that the school's formula is hard to copy, many parents in neighboring districts see it as a model worth importing.

In Fairfax, some parents at Riverside Elementary, in the Mount Vernon area, are pushing for a "traditional program" at their school after visiting Arlington Traditional. "We saw there was a way for students to be accountable for their behavior," said Robin Beyland, who has a fourth-grader at Riverside.

Alexandria plans to open such a program next fall at Lyles-Crouch Elementary, which will be renamed Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy. It will enroll students from the neighborhood but will leave slots for children who want to transfer there.

Principal Lucretia Jackson bubbles over with ideas for the school, such as uniforms, behavior agreements and a longer school day.

"I strongly believe this is something we should have never gotten away from," Jackson said.

CAPTION: Students in Lorraine Gandy's kindergarten class at Arlington Traditional School work on phonics, which is emphasized at the school along with math drills, daily homework and Friday assemblies.

CAPTION: Anna Christopher jumps during a phonics lesson that combines movement with study.