For the Bonds, the perfectly renovated, 140-year-old Federal Period house on Capitol Hill was the ideal home in 1977. It was walking distance to the Capitol, where Jim Bond works for the Senate Appropriations Committee. And Mary Claire Bond felt that the house, once the Swiss Embassy, was perfect because of its wide floor boards and simple brick fireplaces, its Williamsburg wall colors and cozy, warm feeling.
One year later, their first child, Virginia, was born. Right away, says Mary Claire Bond, she and her husband started thinking about schools for their daughter. Last year, they reluctantly sold the house at Ninth and C streets NE and moved to Bethesda, where they believe their daughter and infant son will get a good public education.
When the Bonds moved to the Hill, they, like many of the other newcomers to Washington's near-to-downtown neighborhoods, were childless. The Bonds intended to stay, but the birth of their child left them with a dilemma they hadn't expected.
The Bonds, and others like them, are faced with the choice of sending their children to Washington's public schools, which have a reputation for low -- if gradually increasing -- standards; sending the children to private schools that have better reputations but can cost thousands of dollars a year; or moving their families to the suburbs, where the public schools are generally considered better.
Washington's inner-city renovation occurred faster than that of any other major American city during the 1970s, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, as young professionals moved into neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle, Logan Circle, Adams-Morgan, Mount Pleasant and Shaw.
Few of these so-called pioneers concerned themselves with schools when they moved to the inner city, often buying deteriorating row houses that were cheap, large and within walking distance of downtown office and government buildings. For years, the important issues for the newcomers were sharing the names of good contractors, fighting to rid their blocks of illegal drugs and prostitution, and forming strong neighborhood associations to deal with the D.C. government. But now, schools are of increasing concern.
"The bulk of the renovation was done in the '70s by the young singles, the young marrieds, the young living-togethers and the gays, generally no one with children," says Capitol Hill realtor Don Denton. "Now those people are older and more established, with children age 1 to 5."
These renovators, Denton says, are being afflicted with what he calls "green grass fever" -- the desire to have more space to raise their children, and the related issue of where to send the children to school.
There are no figures on the number of these families who are now faced with the schools dilemma. But they are not difficult to find.
Among those planning to move from Capitol Hill are Karen and Jim McManus and their two children, Michael, 4 1/2, and Jacki, 2. Having lived on the Hill since 1974, Karen McManus says, she and her husband enjoy city life in general and the subway system in particular. But during the past year they have spent weekends looking at houses in Chevy Chase.
"We would like to consider public schools as an option, but we don't feel we have that option on Capitol Hill," says Karen McManus. "If it were just us and not the children . . . we would stay here.
"Friends think we are selling out. There are some people who will stay no matter what. We are a family, and that makes the difference."
Scores on standardized tests, commonly cited as a measure of a school system's performance, have been rising throughout the metropolitan area, including Washington. But the scores of D.C. public school students remain below those of suburban school districts, with D.C. students scoring, on the average, at the 38th percentile on such tests, compared to an area high of the 75th percentile in Montgomery County.
One option for those who choose to stay but reject the public schools is private school. According to D.C. government figures for the past school year, 71 percent of white school-age children in Washington and 10 percent of black school-age children attend private school. Private school tuition in the city averages about $3,000 per year. Parochial schools charge about $1,000 per year.
Lawyer Paul Allen has lived near Dupont Circle since 1977 in a house he and his wife Susan rehabilitated, complete with deck for their children -- 3-year-old Mark and 1 1/2-year-old Edward -- to play on. Allen says he sees no merit in moving to the suburbs, but also wouldn't consider the city's public schools for his children.
"We are shopping around for a private school. The answer is to make a fortune and open your own school," he says. "We have a co-op school for the kids now. . . . So if you do that, then you start thinking why not continue on with your own school. If you had 20 parents you could open your own school."
The Bonds decided against private school. "Most of our friends we left on the Hill are paying $2,000 for private school. Then you multiply that by the number of children and 12 years," said Jim Bond. "The bottom line is money. Private schools are expensive," said Mary Claire Bond.
Jim Bond now commutes 30 minutes to the Capitol. He remembers their Capitol Hill home as "a different, fantastic house, built in 1843. It was very special. We would have moved it if we could. But the children are the moving thing."
Mary Claire Bond says the 27-year-old rambler where the family now lives is "ordinary, very ordinary. But it has a lot of room and a huge yard. I still feel it is a better area to raise children."
For many, the public school system remains a viable choice. On Capitol Hill, some parents have, in effect, adopted a public elementary school as their own -- the Peabody School at Fifth and C streets NE. It is one of the few public schools in the city with a waiting list.
The century-old, red brick Peabody building sits right in the middle of a high-priced, carefully renovated Victorian neighborhood five blocks from the Capitol. Under the leadership of principal Veola Jackson and with the enthusiastic support of the Peabody Parent-Teacher Association, the school offers extra classes in art, music and writing.
Last June, Jackson says, she met with 13 parents of children not staying at Peabody or not going on to the middle school into which Peabody is supposed to funnel its students -- the Hobson middle school at 12th and E streets SE -- to hear why the parents were pulling their children out.
"The major reasons they gave included the lack of a curriculum for the exceptional student, concern for where their child would go to high school after Hobson, and what I call the socialization problem in the middle school," said Jackson. "They say there are not enough non-black students at Hobson, that the population is not mixed enough. And when kids think about dating, that becomes a concern."
Jackson organized a task force this summer to study ways to improve the curriculum offered at Peabody. "We need an enrichment program for our children who are high achievers. We need to improve our school so that people won't feel the need to go to private school, won't feel the need to leave."
Jackson says that Peabody this year will offer classes that include dance, instrumental music, art appreciation, woodworking, creative writing, and drama as part of an enrichment program, which will be extended to the Hobson school as well.
Chris Nelson, a free-lance writer, has two children at Peabody. An eight-year resident of the area, she teaches a class in writing and is an energetic fund-raiser for the school. She and other parents raised more than $12,000 last year to buy textbooks and playground equipment, pay salaries for part-time teachers in art and music, and buy lab supplies.
Rather than spend money on private schools for her two daughters Prue, 7, and Thea, 4, Nelson says she and her husband, lawyer Carl Nelson, "bank the money and take trips to Europe with the kids. We think that is important for them."
Nelson says she feels an obligation to make the public schools work. "We sell pumpkins, we sell cookies, we sell peaches and we sell Christmas trees. We even did a centennial cookbook. . . . Many white parents are afraid of public schools because of the negative press. The fundraising is for public relations as well as the money. We are saying that we as middle-class parents are not afraid to send our kids to public school."
Lawyer Stanton Braverman says he worked hard to renovate the two-story row house in the 1500 block of Swann Street NW he bought eight years ago. But he found himself confronting the schools problem earlier than anticipated.
His first wife died, and he and his current wife found themselves with Braverman's two children from the first marriage, ages 15 and 13, plus their own 1 1/2-year-old. Braverman, 40, ended up moving the entire family to a large summer house he already owned in St. Michaels, on Maryland's Eastern Shore. He now commutes nearly two hours to Washington.
"We moved because of the schools. Shaw and Cardozo are not the answer for us," Braverman says, referring to D.C. junior high and high schools near the Logan Circle area.
The city house is now a "way station" when he is in town. "What I do is spend two days in the city, and two days out there, and two days in the city and so forth. . . .
"We've taken our tax base to the Eastern Shore, because the city doesn't offer us enough as parents."