Antoinette Peterson has a son and a daughter who began attending parochial school for the first time last week: Thomas, a sophomore who turns 15 Wednesday, and Thomeisha, a 16-year-old junior. Both had attended the District's public schools since pre-kindergarten, though their mother always believed a private school would be better.

"I always wanted them to have a good education, but I just never could afford it," she said. "So when the opportunity came, I took advantage of it."

After years of debate in the District, the nation's first federally funded voucher program began to take shape last week as its first students started classes at independent schools and schools affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church and other faiths.

The 1,023 students who had been placed at schools as of Friday include Asian, Hispanic and African immigrants, as well as native-born African Americans, who make up nearly 85 percent of the District's public school students. Children at all grade levels are using vouchers, though two-thirds of the recipients are in kindergarten through fifth grade. The students receive as much as $7,500 a year for tuition and fees and must come from low-income families.

The 53 participating schools, all in the District, range from Sidwell Friends School, the prestigious Quaker academy that has educated the children of presidents and ambassadors, to the tiny, all-black Clara Muhammad School, which is in an impoverished corner of Southeast Washington and has its roots in the Nation of Islam.

More than half the students, including Thomas and Thomeisha, attend 22 schools run by the Catholic Church, which has a long tradition of educating poor and urban youngsters and has accepted many students who were not admitted elsewhere.

The voucher experiment, known as the D.C. School Choice Incentive Program, is at the forefront of a debate over the purpose and viability of public education, especially in urban communities that have high concentrations of poverty and long legacies of broken schools. Milwaukee and Cleveland are the only other major cities with publicly funded vouchers; Florida has a voucher program for disabled students.

Voucher proponents believe that public schools have a perverse monopoly on the lives of poor youngsters and that school choice ultimately will improve failing schools by forcing them to compete in an open market.

Many educators, unions and others reject the free-market model of education and believe that vouchers will drain resources and good students from neglected public schools that urgently need them.

Those arguments will be played out in the experiences of the first District students to receive vouchers. The Washington Scholarship Fund, the nonprofit group hired by the U.S. Department of Education to administer the $12.5 million voucher program, provided the names of several families willing to discuss their reasons for applying for vouchers. It did not release the number of voucher students at each school.

In recent interviews, the families most often cited the quality of educational offerings at private schools.

"My husband and I are not high-education people, but we want our children to get a good education," said Ya Yan Tam, a Chinese immigrant who works as a porter for a catering company. "In this country, no education means no future."

Her daughter, Kathleen, 13, is entering eighth grade at Sidwell Friends, where tuition is $22,415. Sidwell Friends is making up the difference -- as are all participating schools that charge more than $7,500 a year. Kathleen has attended Sidwell Friends on a nearly full private scholarship since the fifth grade, and is one of 208 students already enrolled in private schools who received vouchers.

Kathleen, who plays softball and soccer, said the teachers at the school are generally better than those at Thomson Elementary School, which she previously attended.

"They concentrate on teaching you the subject and making it fun for you to learn," she said.

The decision to award vouchers to children already enrolled in private schools has been controversial. The voucher program gives priority to students attending public schools deemed "in need of improvement" under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, then to students at other public schools and finally to students enrolled at private schools. The demand for vouchers was greatest at the middle and high school level, where there were not enough spaces to meet the demand.

Sally J. Sachar, president of the Washington Scholarship Fund, said the group awarded scholarships to children in private schools because many were barely able to afford tuition. The group has not disclosed how many of the 208 students already in private schools were, like Kathleen, receiving private scholarships.

Tam's other daughter, Betty, was not chosen in the lottery used to select the voucher recipients and will be a freshman at Deal Junior High School. Tam's son, Andrew, who turns 5 this month, is using a voucher to attend pre-kindergarten at Rock Creek International School, founded in 1988 and offering instruction in English and in French, Spanish or Arabic. Andrew was in pre-kindergarten at Hearst Elementary School last year.

Shirell Simmons, a voucher parent, also has a child at Rock Creek International School. Simmons said that her daughter Kennedy, 8, has attended three public elementary schools in the District, and that none was satisfactory.

"It was important to me to find the most challenging and safe environment for her," said Simmons, who graduated from the District's public schools and attended college, and who has been unemployed for two years. "The schools, as I see it, are underfunded, the teachers are undersupported and everyone is just pretty much trying to stay afloat. "

She had known about Rock Creek from previous research and decided to enroll her daughter in its Spanish program. Tuition is $17,975. The founder and head, J. Daniel Hollinger, said Rock Creek has 29 voucher students -- 12 percent of its enrollment of 240.

For some parents, a school that instills discipline and values, rather than one with a particularly innovative academic program, was the top priority.

Nikia Hammond's four children -- London, 5, a kindergartner; Ronald, 7, a second-grader; Asia, 8, a fourth-grader; and Zackia, 10, a sixth-grader -- will start school Tuesday at the Nannie Helen Burroughs School in Northeast, a Baptist elementary school that was founded in 1909 and has an emphasis on black history and Christian teachings.

Last year, they attended the Merritt Educational Center, a public school with students from kindergarten through eighth grade. Hammond said the school did not have enough extracurricular activities, such as sports teams.

Hammond, a graduate of Ballou Senior High School and a single mother, works two part-time jobs in retail stores. She said she believed her children would be less distracted in private school. "I just wanted to keep them on a good path and get them to stay interested in school and have them learn more," she said.

The Baptist school's principal, Shirley G. Hayes, is on the board of the Washington Scholarship Fund and for 23 years was principal of the District's Park View Elementary School. The private school's tuition is $4,100. Fifteen voucher students had enrolled as of Friday, out of 168 children.

Peterson has not given up on the public schools. Her son Timothy, 12, wanted to stay at Stuart-Hobson Middle School on Capitol Hill, which has a diverse student population.

Her other children, Thomas and Thomeisha, began classes last week at Archbishop Carroll High School. Although her family is Baptist, Peterson said she was attracted by the Catholic school's strong academic program.

Tuition at Archbishop Carroll is $6,975 for Catholics and $7,100 for non-Catholics, and incidental costs are about $700. Parents purchase books and uniforms. Peterson said she is not certain that the two $7,500 scholarships will cover the costs, but she is willing to make up the difference.

Her daughter said she is excited about the new school. "I think it will be a lot different," Thomeisha said. "It's a little bit more strict. D.C. public schools have much more freedom than this one. But I think this school will do a much better job preparing me for college as opposed to public school."

Ya Yan Tam's children Andrew, 4, and Kathleen, 13, are recipients of school vouchers as part of the new D.C. federally funded program.