Did you ever think about just how many years we spend in school? At least twelve years if you complete primary and secondary school, which averages out to 15% of your life (based on the average life expectancy of 79 years). If you go to college and graduate school, that percentage rises to 30%.
All those years at school generate more than just memories and degrees. They also generate a lot of records! And some awkward photos too.
As genealogists and family historians, we tend to focus on census records and vital records when tracing ancestors. But school records are a valuable source for learning about our ancestors. (And they are a lot of fun too!)
School records can include:
These records are valuable because they put our ancestors at a specific time and place. They can be used to trace our ancestors and help fill in the gaps between vital records and census years.
Plus, school records reveal details about the early lives of our ancestors we can’t get anywhere else. They give us a sense of who the were because they show us how they spent their time, such as the clubs they were in, the subjects they were good at, the sports they played, and the awards and honors they won. And best of all, they are a great resource for finding pictures!
My mom on the left. She said she was a high school cheerleader, but I didn't really believe it until I found photo evidence in her yearbooks. And it turns out she looks a lot like her grand-daughters, who also were high school cheerleaders!
Researching school records is like getting in a time machine
and going back to school with your ancestors.
Just like studying for a test at school, you’ll find more records if you prepare and stay organized. Before beginning your school record search:
Start at home. Look through scrapbooks, files, and those dusty boxes in the attic for school records such as admission forms, report cards, diplomas, commencement programs, graduation announcements, school IDs and photos.
Evaluate and record information about each in your research log. Take note of who the item is for, what the item is, dates, names, locations, and what questions you have for further research.
For example, for a report card, you might want to record the name of the ancestor, the date on the report card, the school name, location of the school, the name of the teacher, grades given, and any comments. Information like this can help you trace your ancestors from place to place.
It can also help you identify patterns or provide clues for further research. You might discover that your grandmother moved every few years because her dad was in the Navy or that nearly all of your male ancestors played football.
Lastly, make sure to scan and store everything you find for safekeeping.
Like me, you might be lucky enough to have some of your ancestors yearbooks in your home. My father’s senior high school yearbook photo was the first time I ever saw him with hair! I especially enjoy reading all the handwritten inscriptions from his friends, which contain some details about his "extra-curricular" activities.
My Uncle Charles Guerrieri. Love his bow-tie and quote! They really give me a sense of what he was like as a younger man.
Yearbooks are rich in details about our ancestors. When you read their yearbook, it’s like going back in time and walking the school halls with them. You can discover how they wore their hair, their favorite subjects, what sports they played, what clubs they were in, who were their friends, what causes they cared about, and more.
If you don’t have the physical yearbook, you can find many yearbooks online. Ancestry.com has over 400,000 yearbooks online from all 50 states.
Digitized copies might also be available on the school’s website. If they are not available online, you can likely find copies in the local library and historical society.
Here are some tips for getting the most out of yearbooks:
Class photos are wonderful, but also take note of the clubs, organizations, and athletics your ancestors participated in.
Not all photos are indexed. After finding their class photo, look for them in other candid photos and activities.
Enjoy the time capsule! Flip through the yearbook and get a sense of the time your ancestor was living in.
Look for relatives with same last names.
Many high-schools and colleges published their own daily or weekly newspaper. Some have been digitized and are available to search online. If you can’t find them online, contact the school’s library to see if they are available on microfilm.
High school and college newspapers covered campus and local news including sports, dances, the arts, politics, and even gossip. The ads can give you a sense of where the students spent their time and money.
If your ancestor did something newsworthy, you might find them in these pages with a photo. Even if you don’t find your ancestor, read their school newspaper to get a sense of the world they were living in at the time.
While researching for a client, I discovered his grandfather in the gossip section of his college newspaper courting his grandmother. It included details about the date and that he was president of his fraternity. This was something we had not known. That clue led me to contacting the fraternity where I was able to obtain several photos from their records.
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