Hilltonia shows its westside pride

By Dedra Cordle
Staff Writer

Messenger photo by Dedra Cordle
Two monumental events were celebrated at Hilltonia Middle School in early May. The first was the unveiling of a student-led permanent art installation that highlights the strength, struggle and pride of the westside community. The second was the announcement that art teacher, Joy Hickey, was named the district winner of a ‘My Favorite Teacher’ contest held by Barnes and Noble thanks to a moving essay from student Kateland Vargo. Shown here, Hickey, Vargo and Principal Dr. Joyce Albright (left to right) beam with pride in front of the art installation during the ceremony.

Amongst all of the books on the shelves at Barnes and Noble, it was a poster that really caught Kateland Vargo’s eye.

With its brightly colored palate, the bold letters announced a contest for students to write about a teacher who had made an impact on their lives. Immediately, the eighth grader at Hilltonia Middle School thought of Joy Hickey.

Vargo said she has not been a student of Hickey’s for long, but explained that the impression she had made in a short amount of time has been monumental.

“She’s amazing,” Vargo gushed. “She’s like a replacement mom for me and I know a lot of the other students feel the same.”

Vargo said Hickey has an effortless ability to connect with her students and is always there to lend a supportive hand.

“At one point, I was thinking of dropping out because I had no one in my life that was supporting me, but she was right there to tell me no,” she said.

Vargo even said Hickey had done something for her and her fellow students they never once considered; to take and have pride in their community.

“We’re not immune to the negative things people say about where we live,” said Vargo. “After a while, it starts to get to us.”

Having heard firsthand how her students feel about their surroundings, Hickey began to brainstorm ways to show them that good things can be found on the westside.

Earlier this year, Hickey gave her students an assignment: Write about the positive aspects or the negative aspects about living here. Most chose to write about the latter.

“I had about 60 kids doing this assignment and all but two chose to write about the negative aspects,” Hickey said.

Shortly thereafter, she contacted community and business leaders and asked them to come out and speak about the positives. The idea was not only for the students to know that are good things out there, but also to help them with ideas for a planned permanent art installation in the building.

It didn’t always go well.

“It was pretty hairy in the beginning,” Hickey said. “They didn’t know what these speakers (most of the guest speakers were from the Hilltop Historical Society) had to do with art or the project.”

Though she encouraged the students to draw or write what they feel for the project, she could tell they were getting frustrated by her requirement that at least one of the two clay tiles they had to create featured a positive aspect of the community.

It was during a student/parent night where it finally clicked.

As Hickey spoke to the parents or guardians about the project, they started sharing places or things that held fond memories. They spoke of the cow on top of Schuman’s Meats, they talked about a favorite pizza shop or restaurant. They shared memories of family gathering at the Bean Dinner and days spent studying or getting away for a while at the local library.

At that point, the community also became involved in the art project.

“It just grew,” Hickey said. “It was just to be a student project, but when word got out to the community about what we were doing it became its own thing.”

Vargo said she was surprised by the student response to the project when they came back from break.

“We all just got into the spirit of it.”

In early May, the art installation titled ‘Changing the Conversation’ was unveiled in the lobby of the school where it will be a permanent fixture. It features about 130 tile pieces depicting written words and pictures of the strength, struggle and prosperity of the people and the business on the westside. It was not uncommon to find an inspirational message next to a one of misfortune.

Still, Hickey said it is an honest reflection of the good and bad things one experiences in life.

There was much praise from the attendees at the ceremony, not only for the artwork, but for Hickey herself. There, it was announced at the ceremony that Hickey was the district winner of the Barnes and Noble ‘My Favorite Teacher’ contest. (The district represented the areas of Cincinnati, Columbus and Dayton.)

Hickey said she was proud to have been named the winner of the district contest, but was even happier for Vargo since her essay won as well.

“She’s an exceptional kid.”

Vargo said under Hickey’s tutelage, she is starting to believe it.

“Because of her, I can see past the awful things people say about me or my community,” she said.

“She’s helped me, her students, this school, and maybe the community, to become proud again.”

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