It may be time for you to research their school records — secondary resources, often overlooked by novice genealogists and an excellent way to mold an image of your ancestors as people and not just names in your family tree.
School records provide a glimpse into your ancestors' formative years when they accumulated experiences that eventually shaped their personality and lifestyle for the rest of their lives. You'll discover interesting facts and details about them from grade school, high school, and college records which contain information about the sort of education they received. These records can provide insights into not only your ancestors as individuals, but also the time in which they lived, and the part education played in their lives.
From the bare essentials of a school's history to more revealing report cards, student profiles and photographs, school records can be a valuable tool for the family historian. These records come in a variety of forms, from enrollment cards and annual student records to class lists and school histories to school board minutes and district reports and school censuses. Even old yearbooks can tell you a lot about your ancestors.
Some records contain only statistics, and since you probably have your ancestor's vital facts already, you can ignore these. Most school records in the United States date from the early 19th century, but not all have survived. While many students attended organized grammar schools and high schools, just as many attended one-room rural schools which may not have kept records as carefully as urban schools. Tracking these down can be much harder.
If you've had a tough time finding even vital information for a particular ancestor, early school records may provide that missing information. This is especially true in states where school records have been kept before 1850. Upon registering a student for school, a teacher or clerk would record the name of the head of the household or the name of the guardian, place of residence, and the name, gender, and age of the child. Often they included nicknames of students as well. Some records show the occupation of the parent or guardian and the person's nationality, as well as teachers' names and names of school board members. Finally, the parent or guardian would sign the form. Some states required that scholastic census records be kept.
But finding school records may take some detective work. You'll find many school records in their original schools–that is if the school still exists–or in the archives of institutions that created the records. You may have to search local libraries, historical societies, genealogical societies, and archives for records of schools that have closed. During the consolidation of school districts in the 1960s, records from older schools of the original districts ended up in warehouses with schools of other districts. So though you may know the town in which your ancestor lived, that school district may no longer exist.
Source Information: Everyday Genealogy, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2008.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.
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