For at least eight years, and for most twelve or more, attending school is an integral part of a person's life – especially during their formative years. School records, therefore, can potentially provide valuable insights about ancestors that other records often leave out.
Old school records from elementary, high school, college, university and beyond, include fascinating details, statistics, and glimpses into the lives of a family's ancestors. Unfortunately, most family historians overlook them as a source of personal social history.
Even though finding school records may take a bit of detective work, many can be found in their original schools or in the archives of institutions that created the records. In some cases, records of long-closed schools have survived in local libraries, historical societies, genealogical societies, archives, and in other local and private collections. From school histories and class lists to the more personal yearbooks and old report cards, school records can help family historians to understand their ancestors and the times in which they lived.
Though it's possible to weave together a tapestry of the adult lives of family members, it's facts about their childhood that often go untold. Family history researchers usually focus birth, marriage, and death records to construct the basic events of their ancestors' lives. Names, dates, occupations, and other details are readily available from census records, land and property records, military service records, obituaries, and probate records. But perhaps there was a significant event or trauma in the person's life at a young age that could have changed the person's outlook or future life. These standard genealogical sources most likely won't mention it.
Family historians also need to know what kind of schooling or training their ancestors received. Schools have a lot to do with carving out personalities and futures. Records created by them can provide insights into the part schooling played in defining an ancestor's personality.
From the bare essentials of a school history or a class list to more revealing report cards, student profiles, and photographs, records such as enrollment, registration, and transcripts can be most enlightening, as are high school yearbooks and alumni directories and publications.
Consider the information–names of students and their parents, address, and contact information–parents had to supply when completing enrollment or registration cards for school.
Some schools required a student's date of birth, previous education and location, medical and inoculation history, and other details and maintain these records as the core of every student's academic record file.
Schools, which measure a student's academic performance, also record their grades in the permanent file. A transcript of this file is available for any student from all levels of educational institutions. Colleges and universities request them all the time, as do employers seeking to verify the credentials of prospective employees. Family historians can do the same. Besides indicating a student's success of failure, a transcript can provide insight into his or her course of study, subject major, and academic achievements.
Another type of school record is the yearbook. High schools, colleges, universities, military schools and academies all produce them annually. Each contains a photograph of each student in the graduating class, plus a list of that person's activities throughout their time at that school. Yearbooks also list awards. And under each student's name is often a personal quote conveying some sense of the person and their plans for the future.
Alumni associations publish a number of items, probably the most useful of which are newsletters and magazines. These contain articles about certain alumni and notices of marriages, births of children, and deaths.
Locating the school records isn't difficult. Elementary and secondary schools' records can be found by contacting the board of education in the town or county in which an ancestor attended school. The Registrar's Office at a college and university can supply academic records and transcripts–usually for a fee. Copies of yearbooks, alumni directories, newsletters, magazines, and other publications may be stored in school archives, in school libraries, and sometimes in local public libraries. Genealogical and historical societies may also have copies of yearbooks.
Locating college and university records isn't as much of a problem as finding those of elementary and high schools because most have been in existed for a long time. If the name of a school isn't known but the town in which an ancestor lived is known, it's best to check with local historical societies who may be able to help locate a former school or one that had been torn down.
If the school is still open, family historians should contact the school directly to find out where it keeps its records and what procedures need to be followed to get them. Often though, the schools may have closed, had their name changed, or their records may have been sent to a local warehouse for storage.
Old school records may be kept in a local school district, in a local or state library or archive, in a local government office building, or in a local historical society. Parochial schools' records usually keep their records at the local church or regional diocesan archive, or perhaps with a religious order that founded the school.
Today, family historians can also find some school records–biographies of students, class lists, lists of graduates, school histories, and school registers–on the Internet. The USGenWeb Project is the best place to begin looking for school records on the Web.
The Genealogical Society of Utah has microfilmed many school records. Family historians will find these in the Family History Library Catalog by state or county under the subject heading "Schools."
The Research Libraries Information Network bibliographic database file, with nearly a half million records listed from research libraries, museums, state archives and historical societies in North America, can be found in the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections
Source Information: Family Tree Connection, 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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