Jason was frowning mightily as he pondered the shapes of a puzzle that refused to go back together. His teacher was busy with a math group; the kindergartner was on his own.

Just before his frustration produced tears, the mother of another kindergartner appeared and they worked through the puzzle together.

In another room, the project for one group of third-grade children was painting a backdrop for a class play. Paints had to be mixed, an outline sketched, but their teacher was too busy rehearsing the cast to give direction. s

With the arrival of an art-major college student, the backdrop began to take shape.

In still another area, a math-specialist father took his lunch hour early to work with an accelerated group.

This school is not a private cooperative one, but a District of Columbia public elementary school with an active volunteer program.

Once an integral part of the school fabric, volunteers in many schools have become scarce, primarily because of the large number of mothers working outside the home. Although volunteers have been missed, most schools -- up until this year -- have been able to provide many of the specialized services, and class sizes were fairly small. But with this year's budget cuts in both staff and programs, many schools are seeking volunteers.

"We need to ask for everything and anything," says C. Vennessa Spinner, volunteer coordinator for D.C. public schools. "Volunteers have to feel they matter, because they do. It is our hope that if we get them in, the positive feeling will be passed on, and the commmunity may then become active."

Spinner says she has been "pleased" with the numbers of people who have recognized the needs of the schools, and with the variety of volunteers, including not only parents, but retired senior citizens, high-school and college students.

This year's campaign at Takoma School, for example, began with a volunteer request form sent home the first day of school. Returns numbering over 150 instead of the usual dozen signaled that parents were well aware that their services would be needed.

The intent of any school volunteer program is to supplement, not to replace, faculty members. But volunteers can relieve teachers from non-teaching tasks and assist in a variety of ways.

"It's like having," as one teacher put it, "a whole lot of extra arms."

Although special skills are welcome in a program, they are not necessary. It takes no training to sit with an arm around an unhappy child. This one-to-one contact, teachers stress, can be as beneficial for some children as a slew of special services.

The range of things a volunteer can do is as wide as the subject of education. Volunteers can, for example:

Help children work with clay. (Imagine 30 first graders trying their hand for the first time, with only one adult to supervise.)

Teach your specialty -- Spanish, cooking, science, typing -- to a small group of children as part of a club program.

Be a storyteller for the primary grades.

Direct a glee club for a school that has no music program.

Assist a group of older children prepare an international luncheon, as part of a social studies project.

Join the Band-Aid brigade, especially during lunchtime when the school secretary, receptionist, typist takes on another role as nurse.

Devise math and reading learning games in your leisure time at home.

Arrange the card catalog so that the school librarian can get new children's books out on the shelves.

Most volunteers agree that their time and effort is repaid amply by the smiles and thanks of the children. But there is an added bonus -- knowledge of what is really going on in the school. After one parent (known for her frequent criticisms of a school) spent a day with the primary grades, she remarked, "After seeing how much a teacher is expected to do, I'm impressed with what does get done."

The best of parents' intentions are lost, says Spinner, unless there is a volunteer coordinator, or someone to establish a system of contacting people to announce: "We need you now."

Teachers, she says, must be notified when a volunteer will be in. "People resent wasting their time. But people who feel their time well spent will be big advocates and will press others to join."

One active volunteer's response to another parent's complaints about the lack of music activities is not atypical. "It's your school, too," she said. "Get in there and make it happen."