A train of paper cars winds around the inner walls of J.W. Ray Elementary near Roseland Homes, the “Best School in the U.S.A.” Each car represents a book read by a student.

Trains travel to faraway places, and Principal Larry Lewis sees education as the ticket that will expose his students to the rich world around them.

Although almost all its 320 kindergarten-through-third grade students live in public housing, J.W. Ray is wealthy in the dedication of its principal and teachers, and the financial and personal involvement of corporate benefactors. Lewis, a former salesman, is determined that his kids get the amenities they need to learn.

Parents pay minimal fees for the uniforms their children wear to school. Uniforms were Lewis’ idea to ensure that students from poor economic backgrounds wouldn’t waste energy and money trying to acquire fashionable clothes. The school provides warm coats and meals, even toothpaste and deodorant if necessary.

“Achievement is the bottom line. The only difference between my kids and the kids who go to school in Highland Park is experience and exposure,” says Lewis, 36, who came to J.W. Ray in 1990.

“Some people say kids who come from this environment can’t learn. I say come to my school and you’ll see different.”

If the kids lead difficult lives, “I try to make use of the skills they bring to school. These kids are much more mature than their counterparts. They have better survival skills than many adults. We need to build on those skills and take them where they need to be. Let’s find something to build upon.”

Trouble at home is no excuse.

“I have to teach them: When you walk through the door, forget about home. I’ll feed you, put clothes on you, but forget about that other stuff. We have whatever they need. This is heaven over here.”

At Christmas, J.W. Ray staff helped raise enough money to feed families at seven area schools. Foundations have donated thousands of dollars for school programs, and Lewis arranges as many field trips as he can.

“These kids have never been to Washington, D.C., and they don’t have the foundation to understand what it means. The only way to reach them is to present it in such a way as to whet their appetite to get the experience and exposure they need. I want them to want to get there.

Cele Rodriguez, Lewis’ principal in his previous assignment at Rusk Middle School taught him: “Only those who see the invisible can do the impossible.” Lewis, who grew up in public housing in Fort Worth as one of 14 children, understands.

“We can’t just look at where the kids are now. That would limit them,” he says. “We see where they’re going and treat them like Rhodes Scholars.”

Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.