A few months ago, Lisa Bellamy, principal of Dunbar Elementary School, received a phone call - would she like 200 city employees to give her students intensive, one-on-one reading help twice a week?

Dunbar, at 12th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue in North Philadelphia, is one of the Philadelphia School District's neediest schools. Last year, none of its fourth or fifth graders passed state exams in reading; 17 percent of third graders passed.

"How could I say no?" said Bellamy, an energetic leader popular with her 240 students. "Of course. We're there."

In February, 75 students - all Dunbar first through fourth graders and the fifth through eighth graders who needed extra help in reading - began boarding buses for City Hall and the Municipal Services Building. Twice a week, city employees gave up their lunch hour to read to their young buddies.

Over four months, the students improved an average of 11/2 grade levels in reading, a recent exam showed. That's a big leap, Bellamy said.

"Just knowing that someone has taken the time to be with them one on one is terrific for the kids," she said. "And the improvement is great."

Yesterday, hundreds of people crowded a grand room in City Hall to celebrate the partnership. The Dunbar students fidgeted, gaping at the shiny chandelier, the ornate woodworking, and all the people clapping for them.

And when Mayor Nutter gave them instructions for what to do this summer, they were rapt.

"Repeat after me: Read a book," the mayor told them.

"READ A BOOK!" the students shouted back, eyes fixed on Nutter.

Fourth grader Shiheed Corey gave the program a big thumbs-up.

"I liked that they're getting our education straightened out," said Shiheed, 10. "You just get to have fun, reading and talking."

Monche Harvey, a second grader, liked riding the bus to the tall building downtown. Transportation was provided by Greater Philadelphia Cares, which coordinated the project and has run reading programs citywide for five years.

"I liked having a nice time, reading with my friend," Monche said. "It helped me with my reading."

It was the first time city employees had volunteered to be reading partners with Greater Philadelphia Cares. Isaac Whitaker, an inspector in the City Controller's Office, said it would not be his last.

"I got something out of it, every time," said Whitaker, who said he read with a second-grade girl who gave him hugs at the end of every meeting and really made strides in her reading.

Even Camille Barnett, the city's managing director, got into the act, taking a break to read with a Dunbar student weekly.

"It was a break from the ordinary, but it was refreshing, and it was hopeful," Barnett said.

Frankie Lancos, a spokeswoman for Greater Philadelphia Cares, said that Dunbar was chosen for its need and that seeing students shine was enormously gratifying.

Most Dunbar students live in poverty. Twenty-two percent receive special-education services, and students frequently transfer in and out during the school year.

"It's a small school, and it definitely has deep challenges," Lancos said. "But the school is working so hard, and the kids are so great."

Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com.