If three-quarters of a school's children come from low-income families, and almost that many kids have had little exposure to English, and the school is in a system where poor achievement is a seemingly fixed tradition, wouldn't it be good to have a reading teacher who could work closely with each child toward mastery of learning's most essential tool?

Ross Elementary School in the Dupont Circle section of Washington has such a teacher. Mark Lewis spends time each day with kindergartners and first- and second-graders, drilling them on letter sounds, helping them combine sounds to create words. He works with whole classes, reciting stories to build reading fluency; he works with troubled readers one-on-one to push toward the breakthrough he knows will come.

Test scores at Ross are up among the students Lewis teaches; Ross students in general perform considerably better than kids citywide.

Lewis is funny, tough, encouraging, creative. Kids love him. Classroom teachers depend on him. The principal, Gloria Smith, calls him "an absolute godsend."

Too bad Lewis is but a volunteer. Like many D.C. schools, Ross has no staff reading teacher. Indeed, it faces an annual bloodletting, in which essential positions are eliminated while the tsunami of money that flows into school headquarters grows inexorably. Across the city, principals and parents watch slack-jawed as annual layoffs leave many schools without librarians, art teachers, counselors and reading and math specialists.

"We don't qualify for a reading specialist" paid for by the system because Ross's scores have not hit rock bottom, Smith says. And she says she can't afford to pay a reading teacher from her own budget. Ross lost two positions last year -- the librarian and an English as a Second Language teacher -- and two positions the year before. She expects to lose two positions this year. In a school with only 22 staffers, that hits hard.

Thanks to his wife, a big bucks lawyer, Lewis has the freedom to volunteer at Ross, where he is treated and acts as if he were a regular staffer. He taught on staff at another D.C. elementary school for a decade before going off to earn a master's degree in reading because he realized that he really didn't know how to help kids who had trouble reading.

Ross's first-grade class has 23 children, who live primarily in the Logan Circle and Adams Morgan areas. At home, eight speak Spanish, three Amharic (Ethiopian), two Tagalog (Philippine), one Arabic (Moroccan) and one French (Mauritanian). There also are eight native English speakers, seven African Americans and one white.

To reach kids who in most cases are not read to at home, Lewis uses a phonics-heavy program that gives children the basics they need to make it in the system's literature-based reading program. The D.C. schools are still mired in a failed 1980s attempt to teach reading through feel-good slogans ("I Can Read!" the signs shout in too many classrooms) and walls festooned with Soviet-style pronouncements, such as this for first-graders: "Performance Standards: The student demonstrates final consonant sounds and distinguishes between likeness and difference of similar sounding words and sounds." The kids just eat that up.

Lewis, 46, ignores all that and hones in on each child's frustrations and potential. He encourages a reluctant boy: "That's a tough word, but when you've read that word five or six times, you own that word. You tell it, 'You're mine!' " He uses programs he learned in graduate school, including one designed for dyslexics, and his results are impressive enough that the system is looking at Lewis's methods as it institutes a new curriculum.

"Teaching reading is rocket science," Lewis says. "You need somebody in each of these schools who knows how to do it, and that reading specialist has to be looked at as sacred ground, not as someone who can be pulled out every time you need a classroom covered."

Lewis returned as a volunteer in part to spend more time with his own children -- one in private school, one in a D.C. public school. But volunteer status also gives him the power to say he is here solely to teach reading. The kids are glad of it. Parents, too. It's the system that should be ashamed that every school doesn't have a Mr. Lewis.

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