September, like Spring, brings a rebirth of sorts – the start of a new school year and Elizabeth O’Neal’s September Genealogy Blog Party’s theme reflects that: School Days.
I’ve blogged many times about my own school days and have written about education of other ancestors, too.
If you haven’t yet started down that path, be forewarned! Unless you or other family members already possess school records of children, parents, grandparents, etc., it might be impossible to obtain them now unless you are hunting for college records.
Why? I discovered many years ago that most school districts don’t have the storage capacity to retain paper records forever and they definitely don’t have the financial resources to digitize them.
As unhappy as I was to leave my beloved Passaic in the middle of 6th grade, the fact that I moved saved my school records. In college, I returned to my elementary school with the eyes of a teacher in training. I asked about getting copies of my “cum file” (cumulative file), but was told they were sent on to the high school. I mentioned that I moved before finishing 6th grade and was surprised to hear the secretary’s reply: Oh, in that case, your file is down in the basement storage!
I did receive copies of everything in my file, including images of my kindergarten readiness test! If I had not moved, my elementary school records would have been destroyed after I finished high school.
Passaic had a policy of retaining original records and sending photocopies on to the new receiving school when a student moved.
In either my old or new school district, my K-6 file would have been shredded by the time I made my school visit.
What school records can be found today? Whether or not you are able to access the file of an individual student depends, as in my case, on luck. The more recent the record, the more likely it will still exist.
However, there are other types of school records to be found.
1. School Histories – Many county histories include details about the schools that were established in the area. I was aware that my paternal grandfather attended Passaic School #2. That school was no longer around, or so I thought, by the time I was a Passaic student. In my many visits to St. Michael’s Church with Nana, I would walk around outside next to the church rectory, which was St. Michael’s School. I’d peer into the ground-level windows to see classrooms decorated with student work.
Many years later, I learned that St. Michael’s had purchased School #2 from the city of Passaic! I was even more surprised when I looked online for St. Michael’s School, which is no longer in existence. St. Michael’s sold School #2 BACK to the city and was now named – drum roll . . . . George Washington School #2!
2. School Censuses – A few times in my research, I’ve come across a handful of school “censuses.” One I actually found online in New Brunswick, Canada, naming school children in the early 1800s in a small area. The second I found on Ancestry in Oklahoma records, a 1936 school census, in which my mother-in-law and her siblings were listed on a card apparently filled out by their mother:
Ancestry has a lengthy list of both U.S. and international school censuses and registers in its catalog. MyHeritage also has a list in its collection, although most of its resources look to be at the university level.
3. Yearbooks – Ancestry (by subscription) has a growing collection of yearbooks from the United States and Canada, 1900-c2016 , as does MyHeritage, which offers a FREE U.S. collection, 1890-1979, with a separate (also FREE) index. It will be interesting to see what happens with a lawsuit filed (in California, I believe) by individuals against Ancestry, claiming they didn’t give permission for their yearbook information to be made available online.
4. Local Historical & Genealogical Societies – I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a few local societies welcomed the gift of school records into their collections, donated by school districts. While I doubt individual school files are to be found here, it is very possible that school historical items – programs from school plays, special events, sports, graduations, etc., which would name individual students in them – might be found. It’s worth a phone call, email or letter to inquire!
5. Local Libraries & County Archives – Town libraries are probably even more likely to have school memorabilia. Again, it’s worth a contact to find out what might be in the vertical files or possibly even published resources about its schools.
To summarize, while your research might be lucky enough to turn up original student records, it is much more likely that all those records, through high school, have been destroyed, particularly if it’s been more than ten years since graduation.
However, it’s worth the effort and energy to seek out buried treasure in the form of school histories, which might tell you more about your ancestor’s interests and activities.