Last day of Diggs-Johnson Middle School

The last school bell Wednesday was a bittersweet moment for Jamia Jones and her classmates at Diggs-Johnson Middle School, marking the shuttering of the school and many farewells, a common scene in a city where schools are constantly moving, closing and starting up.

"I feel sad, a little bit. I am writing them letters," Jamia, a rising seventh-grader, said of her goodbyes to administrators, teachers and friends.

So many schools are shifting seats this year, hardly anyone but officials at North Avenue headquarters can keep track of the moves. Diggs-Johnson's story is emblematic of the changes: Not only is Diggs-Johnson closing to make way for a charter school but another school that has shared its building will be moving to a new home.

Most of the Diggs students will walk back into the same building in August, but they will be attending Southwest Baltimore Charter School, which is moving from a building it has shared with James McHenry Elementary for the past five years.

Southwest will expand from an elementary to become a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school. It will continue as a charter that emphasizes the arts and a project-based curriculum.

"I am walking into the same building but meeting different people," said Quan'jayaa Turmon, who will be in the eighth grade next year.

As Diggs-Johnson's enrollment declined from 575 students a few years ago to 245 this year, the school's funding went down as well, said Principal Esther Wallace. This year, she said, she had a skeleton staff and not enough money for after-school activities and extras she thinks that middle-schoolers need.

But once the decision to close the school was made, she said, her challenges changed. "I think the biggest worry is keeping personnel and staff morale up," Wallace said.

The school will be planting a tree outside the front door with a sign that marks it as Diggs-Johnson, Wallace said.

Though some students are sad, others said they are excited about going to a new school. "It will be a great opportunity for me to be in the other school. We will have more programs," said Diamond Spruill, a rising seventh-grader.

"It will probably be different teaching methods," said student Isaiah Reese. "I think we will learn more."

There has been a range of reactions from students and parents, Wallace said, adding that some are not happy about the change.

Not far away at Southwest Baltimore Charter School, staff and students were hurriedly packing for the move to Diggs-Johnson, which will take place Thursday.

"I am inching my way through the halls, there are so many boxes," said Erika Brockman, the executive director of the school. Students had pitched in to pack on their last day, helping to tape boxes, get rid of recyclables and do any other chores.

Diggs is not the only school affected. Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy West, which opened this year with less than 100 students, will also move out of Diggs to make room for Southwest. Bluford Drew Jemison will reopen in the old Walbrook complex.

"I think it will be devastating for them. … It is a bittersweet thing for everyone involved. We do not underestimate how hard it can be on staff and children and families to go through a change like this," Brockman said.

In the space that Southwest occupied, James McHenry Elementary will be able to expand to a kindergarten through eighth-grade school.

Southwest will hold a camp over the summer for former Diggs students, so that the staff can get to know the children and help build up skills they might be lacking before the school year starts.

Also Wednesday, city and school officials gathered at William Pinderhughes Elementary School, where Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake unveiled a new website, youthbmore.com, a resource created by the mayor's office with the input of several city agencies to provide information on youth programs taking place around the city this summer.

The website, which carries the tagline "learn more, earn more, be more," will help to ensure that students are "ready to learn when they enter school, ready to earn when they graduate from high school," said Rawlings-Blake.

Despite the budget crisis, 55 recreation centers will remain open and host summer programs, she said.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun reporter Erica Green contributed to this article.

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