Some people make phone calls while others send emails. Some prefer to be there in person, while an increasing number choose to send text messages.

But when two former Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. teachers want to reach out to former students, there is one method of communication that will never go out of style — even as newer technology continues to develop.

In the days since their retirements, former educators Sherri McKinney and Nancy Jo Reed have continued to reach out through a form of communication that seems all but obsolete: letter writing.

Every nine weeks of the school year, McKinney and Reed send letters to their former students who make the honor roll. They also send notes when the students are recognized for athletics or any other accomplishments.

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Additionally, the women make time to attend the students’ games, graduation parties and any other important events in their lives during their years in BCSC schools, and even beyond.

For Reed, it started in the summer of 2008 when her early child care center, Nancy’s Nook and Nursery, was damaged beyond repair in the floods that washed over Columbus. The former BCSC teacher switched to a career in infant and child care in 1986, when the nursery opened.

The flood brought an end not only to Reed’s business but also to her day-to-day relationship with local children.

“Those kids were like family, and when the flood happened it felt like a death,” Reed said.

But through her loss, Reed found a way to rebuild a relationship with her students through a family tradition.

Throughout the years, Reed has kept in contact with her aunts, uncles, cousins and other extended family members around the country through a round-robin letter exchange.

That tradition inspired her to keep track of the accomplishments of the children she cared for at the nursery and remind them that even though she does not see them regularly, she still cares about their lives.

“Once the nursery died, I just missed it so much. So as soon as it closed, I started writing them notes because I couldn’t talk to them in person,” she said.

Retirement, not farewell

McKinney’s teaching career ended in a more traditional manner when she retired from her position at Southside Elementary School in 2012.Like Reed, McKinney said giving up her classroom and daily interaction with students left a void in her life.The bonds McKinney formed with her students were often stronger than those between other teachers and students because she taught in a multi-grade classroom, which meant sometimes she had the same students in her classroom several years in a row.

“You really get to know the families, as well as the children,” McKinney said.

After developing such strong relationships with the students and their families, McKinney said not interacting with them felt wrong, which spurred her to begin writing letters on a regular basis.

“It was just natural that I keep in touch with former students,” she said.

At the end of every nine-week grading period, both women spend hours perusing The Republic and searching for the names of former students who are listed on the honor roll.

Then, they take out their pens and paper — their letters are always handwritten, never typed — and sit down to craft a personal note to each and every student they know, congratulating them on their academic achievements.

“It’s easy to do email, but who writes letters anymore?” McKinney said. “Letters are always special.”

‘Nanny Notes’ in the mail

The educators said they each send about 600 handwritten notes each year. Reed nicknamed her letters “Nanny Notes,” a name that has become synonymous with her care and devotion to her students.“It was always so nice to say, ‘Oh, you have a Nanny Note,’” said Hannah Frey, a senior at Columbus North High School. “And it’s just nice to get mail.”Frey attended Nancy’s Nook and Nursery as a young child and remembers the fun and safe atmosphere Reed always worked hard to cultivate.

As she got older, Frey said, Reed’s Nanny Notes were a fun way to keep in touch with the woman who had cared for her as a little girl. She even returned the favor one year by sending a “Hanny Note” thanking Reed for her continuous care.

“I just said I was so grateful for what she had been doing for us for all those years,” Frey said.

Whenever one of Reed’s students is recognized for other accomplishments, she saves the newspaper clippings and includes them in the envelope with her Nanny Note for the honor roll.

Because she only sends her letters four times a year, timed with the quarterly grading reports, Reed said she sometimes has to mail multiple envelopes at once to students who receive a lot of recognition throughout the school year, especially for athletics.

For her part, McKinney prefers sending students their newspaper clippings as she sees them, rather than holding them all for one letter.

McKinney rarely travels without a set of stationery, just in case she comes across an opportunity to write a note of encouragement to one of her students.

Even if she does not make the honor roll in one particular nine-week period, Northside Middle School seventh-grader Ella Anderson said McKinney will still send her a letter encouraging her to continue striving for academic excellence.

Ella was in McKinney’s class in second and third grades, so the teacher-student duo had the opportunity to bond on a deeper level and learn about each others’ interests, including Anderson’s love for dance.

When she performed as Clara in “The Nutcracker” this year, Ella said her former teacher sent her special note to congratulate her on her performance in the coveted Christmas role.

McKinney’s preferred method of contacting her students is something Ella said she has never encountered from any other teacher.

“It’s nice that she stayed connected even after she retired,” Ella said.

Memories at graduation

As students near the end of their high school careers, McKinney and Reed make it a point to attend as many graduation open houses as possible to bid farewell to students before they embark on the next journey in their lives.Often, the memorabilia displayed at those open houses include at least a few of the letters Reed and McKinney have sent throughout the years.“I had a student say, ‘At my open house, I want to have a display of all of Mrs. McKinney’s letters,’” McKinney said.

As the students enter their adult lives, the two former teachers update their letters to reflect the students’ grown-up accomplishments.

Even as they begin their careers and start families of their own, the women said their former students will still make the time to write them back and even provide their new addresses to ensure the letter exchanges will continue for years to come.

Although at times it is overwhelming to keep track of all former students and the things they achieve, both McKinney and Reed say the smiles on the faces of their students when they receive a special note make their letters worth every effort.

“It’s a labor of love,” Reed said.

How to make the honor roll

The honor roll recognizes students for above-average academic achievement. In the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., there are two levels of honor-roll recognition:

  • Gold honor roll, or honor roll with distinction, is awarded to students with a 10.0 GPA on a 12.0 scale, the equivalent of an A- average.
  • Silver honor roll, or honor roll, is awarded to students with a 9.0 GPA on a 12.0 scale, the equivalent of a B+ average.

Students in third through 12th grades are eligible to make the honor roll. Each school decides individually how to reward students for their academic achievements.

Sherry McKinney bio

After taking her first teaching job in Hammond in 1970, Sherri McKinney, 68, moved to BCSC schools in 1971. She taught at Lincoln Elementary School — now Columbus Signature Academy – Lincoln campus — for 12 years before taking a job at Southside Elementary School. While at Southside, McKinney co-founded the multiage classroom program and taught students in multiple grades. She retired from Southside in 2012 after 42 years as an educator and still lives in Columbus today.

Nancy Jo Reed bio

Nancy Jo Reed, 74, began her in-home child care service in 1986 with just one baby. Over the years, Nancy’s Nook and Nursery grew into a business where 157 infant, toddlers, preschoolers and young elementary school students were entrusted to her care. After the flood of 2008, the child care center was temporarily relocated, but ultimately closed down in 2008 after 21 years of operation. Reed chose to retire then and continues to live in Columbus.

Pull Quote

“It’s easy to do email, but who writes letters anymore? Letters are always special.”

Retired teacher Sherri McKinney, on her notes to former students

Author photo
Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.