As classic jazz played on their teacher's laptop, a group of first graders at H.B. Wilson Elementary School in Camden pasted black strips onto white paper and colored in the spaces to simulate a Frank Lloyd Wright stained glass window.

Art class is 45 minutes long, just once a week. After the art history lesson is finished, only 20 minutes remain for hands-on creativity. Getting students to stay focused is crucial.

The ability to keep her students happily engaged recently earned art instructor Xiomara Babilonia the Camden School District's Teacher of the Year Award.

In class recently, her students - from the Morgan Village neighborhood - chatted and bobbed to the music as they worked. Babilonia circulated among them and offered suggestions.

"I don't want to put any more strips," said a little girl.

"How about just one more?" Babilonia asked.

"OK," the girl said softly.

"I came from the same upbringing," said Babilonia, 30, who was raised in East Camden. "When they're having a rough day, I understand them."

Suddenly, a timer went off. Only five minutes were left before the period would end.

"That bell means stop and clean up, not color faster," Babilonia reminded her students as they raced to finish.

She picked up their masterpieces, which would be completed the following week. By now, the children know the routine. They put away their crayons and piled the leftover strips for use later.

Nothing is wasted in her classroom, said Babilonia, who knows how to stretch a tight budget.

In a district where many children can't afford the materials to create science projects, Babilonia often finds herself giving away precious supplies for students to use in other classes.

Halfway through the school year, Babilonia faced a crisis when she ran out of glue. Thankfully, she said, principal Andrew Bell was able to get more, just enough to make it to June.

"Every year I get to order supplies. Some years you get it all, sometimes you just get half," she said. "You won't get glue, so then I improvise."

If she sees a teacher toss out Styrofoam or cardboard, Babilonia takes it. Even paper clips and stickers. "Anything I can hot-glue down, I will take," she joked.

Babilonia never planned to be a teacher.

The Pennsauken resident, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico, attended Francis X. McGraw Elementary School and East Camden Middle School before graduating from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1998.

Originally, Babilonia's goal was to become an architect. But at Rutgers-Camden, where she took studio art, she fell in love with clay and received a bachelor's degree in ceramics. She received a master's degree in fine art from University of the Arts.

For a short time Babilonia worked in Trenton restoring gargoyles from buildings in New York City and creating molds to recast sculptures. Her sister, then a bilingual educator in Camden, suggested she try teaching.

Babilonia was hired as the art instructor at Cooper's Poynt Middle School in 2003. After six years, she toured the new H.B. Wilson building, where the administration stresses the use of technology, including Smart Boards and personal laptops, in the classroom.

After working there for almost two years and having a kiln in the room, she said, she could not go back to a traditional art room.

As the district's 2011-12 teacher of the year, Babilonia will get some perks, such as a parking space, an allowance to attend a professional workshop, or first dibs on certain technology, said Faith Gibson, chairwoman of the selection committee.

Babilonia, who is married and the mother of a child who will start prekindergarten in the fall, is popular among the students and staff, Bell said.

"She creates an atmosphere of warmth . . . and visually improves the building," Bell said, referring to an intricate backdrop of the Philadelphia skyline she created for a school newscast. She also displays her students' work throughout the building.

A former art teacher himself, at the city's Bonsall Elementary School, Bell said he recognized Babilonia's artistic and teaching gifts right away.

"She can really gear even the youngest students," he said.

In her down time, Babilonia's passion is ceramics.

"I didn't even know what clay was until I went to college," she said. "The fact that I can teach first graders how to make clay [pots] blows my mind."

Babilonia often begins class with an interactive PowerPoint presentation about the artist whose work the students will re-create. Other days she might use the technology to connect the work "to today's world and make it relevant."

Art programs in urban schools are vital to student retention, said Noreen Scott Garrity, associate director of education at the Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts.

"It's going to keep them interested and coming back to school," Scott Garrity said. It also "promotes critical thinking and discipline."

Camden has a lot to do to meet the needs of its students, Babilonia said.

"Going back to the basics - reading, writing, arithmetic" is essential, she suggested - but also funding the arts.

"I love being that room where [children] can just come to get away."

Contact staff writer Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917 or cvargas@phillynews.com.