Kasey Jones, a Forest Meadow Junior High art teacher, just finished her second year at the school. But already she has made an impact, helping her students improve their skills, learn teamwork and earn the school some money at the same time.

Jones’ three ceramics classes painted a mural for the SweeTARTS Art Smart contest and recently came away with a first prize and $5,000.

Jones heard about the contest through Joyce Cope, the school’s librarian. It was open to third- to eighth-grade students around the country, awarding up to $10,000 for the grand prize mural and $5,000 to five first-prize winners.

She was eager to get her kids involved, but first had to raise the money to make it possible.

“We have a very limited budget for art supplies,” she says. “This year, we didn’t even have paint. We also didn’t have scissors, paper, clay, glaze, markers, anything to work with.”

She believed in the project so much she made a special request to the PTA to buy $250 worth of materials.

“One of the ladies from the PTA and I went to Home Depot and bought our supplies,” she says. “I’m pretty thrifty, and I know how to get things for cheap. We bought drop cloths for the canvas and custom paint that was mixed wrong so it was marked way down.”

The students worked for two weeks on the project, which took the place of a written exam. They created an 18-by-15-foot mural, divided into three sections. Jones gave them the idea for the Egyptian theme, having painted large Egyptian murals on her own.

“I threw out the idea to them, and let them figure out how it would all come together,” she says.

The students used books from the library to get ideas of how to draw the characters on the mural, but added plenty of their own creativity to the mix.

They ate the candy that Nestles sent them to use, saving the wrappers for the mural.

“They put them everywhere,” she says, “on the mummies, the sarcophagus, in their hands, all over. A lot of kids at school like big fake platinum jewelry, so a couple of them put big ghetto jewelry on the people in the painting.”

About the only stipulation that Jones put on the final product was that it reflect the students who made it.

“Our racial mix is amazing,” she says. “We have such a variety. So I had them mix the skin color of each person in the mural a different color. We included the skin color of every person in the class, from the darkest African-American to palest white person.”

Jones submitted a photo of the mural in January. In April, she received a call telling her that out of the 5,500 entries, Forest Meadow was a first-place winner.

The school announced the news the next day, and a Nestles spokesperson came to the school to present the $5,000 check in an assembly.

“We had each of the students stand, so the other students could see them. And we told them all that it was possible to come together for something like this.”

Half of the earnings will go directly to the school’s art department. And Jones is wasting no time in using it to get ready for next year.

“I just put in a big ol’ fat order of supplies,” she says.

“I’m proud of how the kids came together,” she says. “To do that is a feat in itself, because all day long they tell me that they can’t. I hear that all the time. And now they see that they can.”