Top 10 Strategies for Finding School Records for Genealogy
Have you found all the school records there are to be had for your ancestors? Most of us haven’t, and the chances are very good that there are still some gems out there waiting to be found. Here are ten solid strategies that will help you track them down for your genealogy research.
Because the movement for compulsory public education didn’t begin until the 1920s, many people assume that there few records to be had for genealogical purposes prior to that time. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Many children attended school much earlier.
In fact, it may be surprising to learn that the first public school in what is now the United States opened in the 17th century. On April 23, 1635, the first public school was established in Boston, Massachusetts.
It was a boys-only public secondary school called the Boston Latin School, and it was led by schoolmaster Philemon Pormont, a Puritan settler. The school was strictly for college preparation, and produced well-known graduates including John Hancock and Samuel Adams. It’s most famous dropout? Benjamin Franklin! The school is still in operation today, though in a different location.
Thousands of schools serving millions of students have been established in the U.S. since the inception of the Boston Latin School. (According to 2015-16 data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) there are 132,853 K-12 schools in the U.S.) This means that the chances of there being school records for your ancestors is great indeed!
10 Solid Strategies for Finding School Records for Genealogy
Here are 10 proven ways to find your ancestors’ awkward yearbook photos, sports triumphs, and much, much more.
1. Establish a Timeline of your Ancestor’s Education
Check your genealogy software database to figure out when your ancestor would have attended high school or college. Keep in mind, as recently as the 1960s, children did not go to Kindergarten but may have started school at about 6 years old and beginning in First Grade.
To keep my search organized, I decided to create a simple worksheet form in a Word document. It allows me to identify the right time frames, locations, and other pertinent information for my search, and record my progress along the way.
Premium Bonus Download: Click to download the blank school records worksheet for your own school research use. (Premium Membership required.)
2. Consult Family Papers and Books for School Records
Go through old family papers and books looking for things like:
- school photos
- senior calling cards,
- high school autograph books,
- journals and diaries,
- fraternity or sorority memorabilia,
- yearbooks and more.
When I dug through boxes and my grandmother’s cedar chest I found several records like…
a Report Card:
Grandma’s class picture from the 7th grade in 1925, Chowchilla, California. She is in the back row on the far right, and her brother is the boy in the center of the back row:
And Grandma’s senior portrait, 1930:
3. Google for Academic Family History
From the professional website of the state archives to the family history site cobbled together by a cousin you’ve never met, the potential for finding school records on the vast expanse of the internet is limitless! Google is the tool to help you locate websites that include school-related records with lightning speed.
Since I’m not sure which school my grandmother attended, I started off my search for my grandmother’s school with a simple query for the history of schools in the county where she lived as a child:
I was pleasantly surprised at the first search result. It’s a newspaper article from the Madera Tribune literally outlining the history of how the schools evolved in the county! It details such things as the driving forces behind where schools were located, when they were founded, and which ones at the time of the article were no longer in existence.
Next, I focused my attention on the grade school listed on Grandma’s brother’s 6th grade report card that I discovered during my search of family papers. I Googled the name of the school, county and state.
A search like this can literally deliver millions of results. In fact, this specific search brings up over 1 million search results.
You can typically reduce the unwanted search results by 90% by using search operators. These symbols and words give Google further instructions on what you want done with the words you are searching.
While I cover a large number of operators in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, I’m going to use just one of the most popular to dramatically improve my search for the Sharon school.
In the example below I put quotation marks around the name of the school. Doing this explains to Google that I want this phrase to appear exactly as I typed it in every single search result. You’ve probably noticed that when you search a phrase by itself, you’ll receive results that include only one of the words, or the words spelled differently, or in a different order. The quotation marks search operator prevents this from happening. It mandates that the phrase appear on every result exactly as you typed it.
Notice that I didn’t put quotation marks around the county name or the state. I recommend using search operators sparingly, at least in your initial search, to ensure that you don’t miss out on good results. If I were to put quotations marks around “Madera county” I would not receive any web pages that do mention Sharon School but just don’t happen to mention Madera County as a phrase.
Notice also that this search resulted in just over 11,000 results, a small fraction of what I would have received had I not used the quotation marks! Even more important is that the results on the first few pages of are all very good matches.
I could try a few more variations such as adding words like history, genealogy or records.
My googling led me to the Internet Archive where I found old silent color movies shot in the 1940s. There were several films and one featured the local school in the area where my relatives lived. Many, many people were filmed! Could one of those faces be one of my relatives?! Learn more about finding genealogical information includes school records by watching and reading 10 Awesome Genealogy Finds at the Internet Archive.
4. Search Newspapers
Historic newspaper are also a wonderful source of honor rolls, school sporting events and anything else having to do with school life.
While there are certainly more historic newspapers online than ever before, it’s still a fraction of what is available.
A visit to the Chronicling America website can help. At the home page click the U.S. Newspaper Directory button:
On the Directory search page, enter the state, county and town:
On the results page, click the “View complete holding information” link:
Now you can view all of the known available locations for this item:
In my case, the Chowchilla newspaper of the early 20th century has not been digitized and is not available online. However, the California State Archives in Sacramento has an extensive collection of microfilm. I was able to make the trip in person, and was certainly glad I did! They not only had the newspaper I needed but also countless other resources that were helpful for my genealogical research.
Here are additional resources to help you find newspapers for your school records research:
- Local newspapers can also be found by searching for the public library website in the town where your ancestor attended school. Check the library’s online card catalog or contact them directly to see what newspapers they have and whether any can be loaned (on microfilm) through inter-library loan.
- Click here to visit Newspapers.com by Ancestry website. This is a subscription website with over 14,900+ newspapers from the 1700s–2000s and millions of additional pages being added monthly.
- Click here to search Genealogy Bank – (This page includes a 7 day free trial option.) This popular subscription website has over 11,000 newspaper, 95% of which Genealogy Bank says are exclusive to their website.
5. Consult U.S. State Archives and Libraries
The public libraries and state archives across the country are a treasure trove of genealogical resources, and that includes school-related records.
While it’s easy to stop by your local library for a search, it may not be as easy to make your way to the public library in the town where your ancestors lived. Turn to the internet to do your homework regarding the repositories, their holdings, and the most convenient and economical way for you to access them.
A great place to start is the WorldCat website.
Start by conducting a search. Once you find an item of interest, enter your zip code under the “Find a Copy in the Library” section to identify where it’s available.
As you can see, the name of the libraries are hyperlinked so that you can click through to the item on their website. This makes requesting a look-up or photo copy very easy.
I can’t stress the value of State Libraries enough. Gere are three more excellent resources:
- Click here for the List of U.S. state libraries and archives at Wikipedia.
- List of U.S. State Libraries and Archives at the National Archives.
- Click here to read Archivist Melissa Barker’s article called Using Vertical Files in Archives.
6. Contact State Historical and Genealogical Societies
In addition to newspapers, state historical and genealogical societies might have old yearbooks, school photograph collections or other records. For example, the Ohio Genealogical Society library has a large collection of Ohio school yearbooks.
Local historical and genealogical societies may also have school memorabilia in their small or archived collections.
To find contact information for a local historical or genealogical society, Google the name of the county and state and add the words genealogy, history and / or society at the end. For example: Darke County Ohio genealogy society.
7. Search for Online Yearbooks
One of the most exciting genealogical record collections to have come out in recent times is Ancestry.com’s U.S. School Yearbooks 1900-1999 collection. It is an indexed collection of middle school, junior high, high school, and college yearbooks from across the United States.
In June of 2019 Ancestry replaced old records with new updated records for most of the yearbooks found on the site. They also added new records from 150,000 yearbooks that previously only had images available. Later in August of 2019 they improved the collection even further by adding a staggering 3.8 million new records. This update also included 30,000 new image-only books.
Ancestry also has an extensive indexed collection of middle school, junior high, high school, and college yearbooks for Canada. Click here to search the Canadian collection.
MyHeritage has an international collection of yearbooks. In the menu under Research go to the Collection Catalog and search for Schools & Universities.
Additional websites featuring yearbooks include:
Old-Yearbooks.com – According to the website, “Old-Yearbooks.com is a free genealogy site, displaying old yearbooks, class rosters, alumni lists, school photos and related school items. All materials on this site are the property of the submitter. You may not use the images, text or materials elsewhere, whether in print or electronically, without written permission from the submitter or this site.”
Classmates.com – “Register for free to browse hundreds of thousands of yearbooks! You’ll find classic photos of friends, family, and even your favorite celebrities. Viewing the books is always free, and you can purchase a high-quality reprint.”
E-Yearbook.com – Their goal is to digitize all old high school, college & military yearbooks. The site has millions of yearbook pictures digitized, they say they are adding thousands of new pictures every week. “From our estimates, we offer the largest collection of old high school, college and military yearbooks on the Internet today.”
8. Check Township Archives
You might be thinking you didn’t read that right, but you did. Townships are small areas within the county. These small townships may have their own archives or one room museums. They are often the holders of some pretty one-of-a-kind finds.
The best way to determine what the township may have is to contact the township trustees. Google your township name, the county name, state name, and add the word trustee. You will likely need to give one of the trustees’ a phone call to ask what resources might be available.
9. Search ebay Auctions
The auction website ebay is the perfect place to look for school record and memorabilia, particularly hard-to-find yearbooks.
Conduct a search on the school or town you are looking for to see if anyone is selling a yearbook that you want. (You’ll need a free ebay account to do this.) Also, search for old photographs or postcards of the school building that you can add to your family history.
When I searched for Chowchilla California School, several auctions for school-related items from Grandma’s high school came up. Unfortunately, these are auctions for yearbooks after she had already graduated. But no worries! This search is only for today. Tomorrow someone could put up an auction for exactly what I want. There’s only one problem: no one has enough time to search every single day!
A way to save time and ensure that you don’t miss new auction items is to save your search.
Click the Save this search button toward the top of the page:
By doing this, you will be sent an email any time a new auction comes up that meets your search criteria. You can learn more about setting up ebay saved searches for family history by listening to Genealogy Gems Podcast episode #140.
Here’s another one of my favorite strategies: After you run your initial search, check the box on the results page to include completed listings.
In the revised “Completed” search results you may see some items that are of interest. If the item has a green price, it means the item was sold. If the price is black, it did not sell.
Each item will also have a link that says View Similar Active Items. Click that to see a list of items currently for sale that are very similar to one that you wanted.
You can also contact the seller of any item to inquire about the unsold item or to ask whether they have related items.
I bought the yearbook above on ebay several years ago. It includes several photographs of my husband’s grandfather who was a music teacher at the high school back in the 1940s.
10. Call the School
If the school is still in operation, try calling the main office of the administration office. They may have old yearbooks and scrapbooks in their library or on display. If they don’t, they may very well be able to tell you where they can be found.
You can obtain contact information by Googling the name of the school and the location.
Good times to try calling a school are mid-morning after kids are settled into class, or between 3 and 4:00 pm local time, when many of the kids have gone home but the school office is still open.
Tell Us About the School Records You Find
Using these strategies you are bound to find more school records for your genealogical search. Please leave a comment below and share what you found, where you found it, and which strategy you used. It will inspire us all to keep looking! And if you have a favorite strategy that we didn’t mention here, please do share that too.
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The Genealogy Gems Podcast
with Lisa Louise Cooke
It’s finally here – the 200th episode of the free Genealogy Gems podcast, also celebrating its 10th year.
In this special episode, Lisa invites Professor Mark Auslander to share his discoveries about a mother and young daughter separated by slavery. Learn how he pieced together their story from a poignant family heirloom found at a flea market.
Throughout the episode, you will hear from several listeners, past podcast guests, Gems staffers and supporters in the genealogy industry with congratulations, memories, stories, and favorite Gems tips. Listen for the DNA success story of an adoptee who never gave up his search for his biological roots.
Thanks to all listeners and friends who sent congratulations! Among them are:
Allison Dolan, Publisher, Family Tree Magazine. She mentioned the Family Tree Magazine Podcast
Bruce Buzbee, RootsMagic family history software
DearMYRTLE, veteran online genealogy educator and author of the award-winning DearMYRTLE blog. She mentioned Lisa’s Family History: Genealogy Made Easy podcast; her all-day seminars at societies; and classes at her booth during conferences.
Geoff Rasmussen, Legacy Family Tree webinars, and author of Kindred Voices: Listening for Our Ancestors
Jim Shaughnessy, Findmypast.com
Mary Tedesco, host and genealogist on PBS’ Genealogy Roadshow, founder of Origins Italy, co-author of Tracing Your Italian Ancestors and a guest on Genealogy Gems Podcast episode #175, talking about Italian research and her work on Genealogy Roadshow
Steve Luxenberg, author of Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret. Listen to Lisa’s conversation with him in The Genealogy Gems Podcast episodes 120 and 121. This book and interview planted the seed for the Genealogy Gems Book Club!
Yev Pusin, Social Marketing Marketer, Backblaze online computer backup service, also celebrating its 10th anniversary
MAILBOX: LISA AND SUNNY
The following were mentioned in listener emails and voicemails:
Family History: Genealogy Made Easy Podcast by Lisa Louise Cooke. This is a FREE step-by-step series for beginning genealogists?and more experienced ones who want to brush up or learn something new. One listener mentioned the series on naturalization records in episodes 29-31.
The Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast by Lisa Louise Cooke. Monthly episodes?and the full archive of past episodes?are available to Genealogy Gems Premium website subscribers. This podcast takes what you love about the free Genealogy Gems podcast and goes deeper, broader and more exclusively into topics of interest for U.S. and international audiences.
The Genealogy Gems app is FREE in Google Play and is only $2.99 for Windows, iPhone and iPad users.
Using Evernote to organize your family history research: free tips and great resources to help you make the most of this free app (or its Premium version) to keep all your genealogy research notes and links organized and at your fingertips.
Netvibes computer dashboard tool and mobile apps for genealogy
Computer backup story from Kathy: “I was robbed! They took the computer AND the backup drive!”
Keep your family history research, photos, tree software files, videos and all other computer files safely backed up with Backblaze, the official cloud-based computer backup system for Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems. Learn more at http://www.backblaze.com/Lisa.
DNA WITH YOUR DNA GUIDE DIAHAN SOUTHARD
Diahan’s series of how-to videos, available to Gems fans for a special price.
Diahan’s series of DNA quick guides, available in print or as digital downloads
Lisa Louise Cooke uses and recommends RootsMagic family history software. From within RootsMagic, you can search WebHints on FamilySearch.org, Findmypast.com and MyHeritage.com. Soon RootsMagic will also be able to search records and even sync your tree with Ancestry.com, too.
MyHeritage.com is the place to make connections with relatives overseas, particularly with those who may still live in your buy medicine online worldwide ancestral homeland. Click here to see what MyHeritage can do for you: it’s free to get started.
INTERVIEW: MARK AUSLANDER
Mark Auslander is an Associate Professor and Museum Director at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, WA and the author of The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of Race and Finding An American Family.
“Slave Mother’s Love in 56 Carefully-Stitched Words”
Mark’s path to the probable family of this artifact used these techniques:
Look closely at all clues from the artifact: the fabric, stitching, colors, facts conveyed in the text, etc. Look at both the historical clues and the artistic or symbolic aspects of it.
Create a profile for the people mentioned based on what is known. Probable age for Ruth Middleton in 1921, etc.
Use contextual and social history clues to hypothesize a scenario. The inclusion of “South Carolina” hints that the seamstress didn’t live in South Carolina, so he guessed that she was part of the Great Migration of millions of African-Americans in the early 1900s who headed from the rural South to the industrial Midwest and other urban cities.
Take advantage of unusual clues. Rose is a common name for an enslaved woman, but not Ashley.
Look through all available records. Possible census listings for Ruth Middleton in 1920 didn’t seem likely candidates. He dug through marriage records for Northern states until he found a woman named Ruth who married a man named Middleton who fit the profile he’d created.
Use specialized sources for African-American research, especially records created by and about the slaveholder that relate to the holding, sale or transfer of enslaved people.
Mark says that some researchers describe the search process as “guided by some force larger than yourself that keeps you going through those endless hours in microfilm rooms or online. But it does connect us all in very profound ways to those who came before and those who come after?.Through genealogical work, in a sense we can triumph over death itself and we can move back and forth in time in the most remarkable way.”
Coming up next month in The Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 201: An interview with Angela Walton-Raji on finding African-American ancestors. She shares tons of resources! Even if you haven’t found any African-Americans on your family tree, the challenges and rewards of African-American genealogical research are both fascinating and moving to learn about.
Legacy Tree Genealogists provides expert genealogy research service that works with your research goals, budget and schedule. The Legacy Tree Discovery package offers 3.5 hours of preliminary analysis and research recommendations: a great choice if you’ve hit a brick wall in your research and could use some expert guidance. GENEALOGY GEMS EXCLUSIVE OFFER: Go to www.legacytree.com/genealogygems and use coupon code GEMS100 to save $100 off your purchase of research services (expires 4/30/17).
CONVERSATIONS WITH MORE GEMS
Amie Tennant, Gems Content Contributor: see the Genealogy Gems blog
Lacey Cooke, Gems Service Manager
Vienna Thomas, Associate Producer and Audio Editor; she mentioned a favorite Genealogy Gems Book Club title and interview were with Chris Cleave, author of Everyone Brave is Forgiven
GENEALOGY GEMS BOOK CLUB
The Truth According to Us by internationally bestselling author Annie Barrows
It’s the summer of 1938, and wealthy young socialite Miss Layla Beck is now on the dole as a WPA worker, assigned to write a history of the small town of Macedonia, West Virginia. As she starts asking questions about the town’s past, she is drawn into the secrets of the family she’s staying with?and drawn to a certain handsome member of that family. She and two of those family members take turns narrating the story from different points of view, exploring the theme that historical truth, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder.
Click here to read an introduction to using WPA records for genealogy.
Annie Barrows is also the co-author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This novel takes place after World War II in a London recovering from the Blitz and an island recovering from German occupation. At the heart of Guernsey is an unlikely love story and the inspiring tale of a community that took care of each other in their darkest days with humor, compassion and good books.
Click here to see more Genealogy Gems Book Club selections and how you can listen to Lisa’s upcoming exclusive conversation with author Annie Barrows about The Truth According to Us.
Music from this episode is from the band Venice
The song played at the opening was “We’re Still Here,” from the album Born and Raised.
The song played at the closing was “The Family Tree” from the album 2 Meter Sessies; click to purchase the album or download the song as a single.
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