Locating School Records

Old school records are fascinating! Do you have any in your family history collection?

This is a report card for one subject – Geography – at Anadarko High School in anadarko, Oklahoma for the second and third semesters of the 1936-1937 school year. The student – Ruby Sturgell – was my mother-in-law.

As a retired teacher, I find it very interesting that there was not only a separate card for each subject, but that the student’s rank in that class is given, along with how many students received As, Bs, and so one. Ruby’s grades are circled – she earned a B for second semester, but finished with an A for third semester.

How do family historians find old school records?

I have to say right up front that unless you have inherited them, it’s not likely that you will locate them for a couple of reasons. First, privacy issues! If your family member is still living, he/she can make a request to the school district for a copy of their own school record. However, that leads to reason #2, which is an even bigger issue. Many districts routinely destroy school records within X number of years after a student graduates. Those OFFICIAL school records may no longer exist.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t find anything about your family member’s schooling because there are unofficial records out there, too.

Where? Yearbooks are a huge source of school information and digitized editions are appearing almost daily online. Ancestry probably has the biggest collection, covering U.S. and Canadian schools from 1880-2013. It’s not a complete collection, obviously, but it is growing.

Ruby’s yearbook isn’t yet online, but her brother Richard’s is.

Richard Sturgell

Richard graduated in 1937. I found not only his portrait above, but learned he was interested in joining the U.S. Navy long before World War II broke out.

Richard did join the Navy and served during the war.

There are other types of school records available, but it takes digging in specific locales to determine if they exist.

Did you know that in Arizona an actual school census was taken between 1910-1917?

Source: Ancestry

Not only are parents’ names given, but names and ages of each child are also in this census.

Historical societies often have school related documents. Here are the holdings at the Maine Historical Society:

Maine Historical Society

You just struck gold if you have an ancestor who attended Portland High School between 1863-1901, as students’ names, ages, parents and even courses are in this collection!

If your ancestor attended a college/university, there is a much better chance that those records can still be accessed. Again, if the person is living, he/she will need to make the request for copies. If the student is deceased, you can write to the registrar’s office for information. Harvard responded quickly to my query about my grandfather attending – no one by his name was ever enrolled. I was asking about the World War I time frame, so those records have not been destroyed.

Another potential source for school records are state and county archives. IRAD, Illinois Regional Archives Depository, has a large collection, which includes pupil registers and other school-related items.


There is one more excellent resource for obtaining school information – the local newspaper! For most of the 20th century, all you had to do to get a news item in the paper was to contact the reporter and ask them to publish the news.

Ruby Had Perfect Attendance!

Schools regularly sent in items about special programs, student honor rolls, graduations, plays, sports and just about any other school-related topic. This clipping named 81 students in the 9th grade at Anadarko High School, including Ruby Sturgell, who had no tardies and perfect attendance.

One last suggestion, which requires a bit more deep digging, is to peruse local genealogical society publications. Those old newsletters and journals are gold mines for almost impossible to find tidbits of great information. If you can’t visit a town in person, but there is a local genealogical society, contact them and ask if they have any information about old school records in that area.

Now, don’t waste any more time – find out if those local school records you would love to have are out there!



One thought on “Locating School Records”

  1. Happily, I have my mother’s HS yearbook, and my father’s grade-school diploma (yep, an actual diploma). Both went to school in New York City, where public school records are routinely destroyed after a set period, so I doubt I’ll ever see more than this. On the other hand, I’m going to take your advice and search local newspapers for possible mentions! Thanks for the tip.

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