6 Best School Records for Genealogy

School records can fill in the gaps in missing vital records, as well as provide a rare glimpse into the daily lives of our ancestors. Guest blogger Margaret Linford shares her personal stories about how schools can connect us to our families. She also provides great tips on what kinds of records and resources to look for, and where you might find them. 

The lazy days of summer are coming to an end.

The roar of school bus engines will again be heard echoing throughout towns and cities all across the country, delivering students to their respective schools. The smell of new books and freshly sharpened pencils will permeate the hallways as teachers greet their students and embark upon a new school year. The beginning of a new school year is a time of great anticipation. Excitement fills the air as school friends reunite, anxiously sharing their tales of summer adventures. Days spent lounging by the pool are abruptly replaced with early-morning alarm clocks and evenings occupied with homework.

This year, I suddenly find myself the mother of a fifth-grader and a high-schooler. On several occasions, I have caught myself lamenting over the speed with which my children are growing up. I have occupied several afternoons looking back at their baby books and school pictures, wondering where the time has gone. I am nostalgic for the days of preschool and Kindergarten, when the biggest concern was their mastery of ABCs, how high they could count, and how well they played with others.

Two weeks ago, I had the unique experience of escorting my oldest daughter to an orientation at her new high school—my alma mater. As we sat in the auditorium, scenes from my teenage years flashed before my mind’s eye. I could envision a young girl playing bass clarinet with her high school band on the stage, tapping her toe in time to the rhythm of the music. As we left the auditorium, more flashes from the past came to mind. “This is the hallway where my friends and I would congregate between classes. This is the room where Mrs. Goodman did her best to teach us the laws of physics, despite our attempts at an afternoon nap. That is the window through which I spent many moments in Mrs. Scott’s class, daydreaming about what the future held.”

On the evening of my daughter’s orientation, I was shocked to discover that, although much had changed, some things were strikingly familiar. The room where I learned to type on an old-school typewriter, with ribbon and ink, had now been transformed into a computer lab. The chemistry classroom still occupied the same space, with cabinets stocked full of beakers and all manner of scientific paraphernalia, waiting to introduce students to the wonders of chemical reactions.

I caught my daughter, Amelia, sometimes glancing my way as we navigated the crowded hallways. It was apparent that she was attempting to read my mind and the emotions I felt as I returned to this space that contributed significantly to making me who I am. It was evident to her that I was preoccupied with a barrage of memories. She took advantage of the opportunity to conduct her own family history interview. “Mom, where was your locker? What has changed since you were here? What was your favorite class?” As she formulated each question, I realized that she had gained a vision of the importance of family stories. I smiled as we walked the hallways together that evening, sharing stories from my past and hopes for her future.

There are fleeting moments like this in each family—moments when past meets future. These occasions often pass us by, their significance unnoticed or unappreciated. These flashes in time are offered to us as immeasurable gifts, whose value increases with the passage of years. How many of us would love to have the opportunity of walking down the halls of our parents’ and grandparents’ schools, hearing them tell of how things had transformed and what had remained unchanged? While circumstances may prevent us from having this experience with our ancestors, I’d like to share with you six of the best school records which can assist you in understanding what your forebears were like, as students. These records tell their own stories. As we discover them, we forge emotional connections with those who came before us. We gain a greater understanding of their strengths and their weaknesses.

Here are 6 of the best school records for genealogy research:

1. School Census Records

School census records were maintained to assist school districts in allocating resources and planning for the future, among other things. Much like the United States Census, these records provide genealogists with important information. If you are lucky enough to find census records for a family with school children in the 1880s and 1890s, they can even act as a wonderful resource for tracing families during the elusive final two decades of the 19th century.

In Smyth County, Virginia, three of these important volumes were saved from the clutches of a trash can. The books contained the names of children attending school from the years 1885, 1910, and 1915. They had been placed in a box, to be thrown away, when a member of the local genealogical society spotted them. She immediately recognized their worth and asked if she might spare them. Thanks to this instance of being in the right place at the right time, the books were rescued.

The oldest of the three books is a relatively small, brown ledger book. It has a marbled cover. Inside the front cover is written, “School Census taken by J. B. Rhea, clerk of Board of 4th School Dist. Smyth Co. Va., between June 8th and July 20th 1885.” Underneath, Mr. Rhea has done the math and determined that there are 815 students enrolled in the 4th School District. The pages within are fragile and have become brittle with age. Upon these pages are listed all the children “between the ages of one year (and less) and twenty-one years.” This census is a valuable genealogical resource because it lists the names of parents, occupation of father, names and ages of each child in the family, whether or not the child can read and write, how much education the child has had and, most importantly, the birthplace of the father. Many of the fathers were born in Virginia or Tennessee. In some cases, there is genealogical “gold.” For instance, Alex Campbell, father of Robert, Bell, and Mary Campbell, was born in Scotland. Another father, Richard Goodell, was born in New York. He is working as a merchant in Smyth County in 1885. Charles F. Lincoln, a local “mechanic,” is listed as having been born in Massachusetts. This can be a key piece of information for family researchers.

These records may be found in libraries, historical societies, State Archives, and within collections at Ancestry, FamilySearch, Findmypast, and MyHeritage.

Virginia School Attendance Record2. Daily Attendance Registers/Class Grades

This record set contains precisely what the name implies—a register of attendance and grades. Each teacher was responsible for maintaining these records on a daily basis. Who was present and accounted for each day? Who was absent? What subjects were strengths? Where could they have improved? The quality of the records depends on the record-keeping of the teacher.

Recently, a filing cabinet full of these records was brought to my attention by our local Superintendent of Schools. He invited me to visit the county school board office and look through the old wooden filing cabinet, in an effort to determine whether or not the records might be of benefit to families conducting genealogical research. The records dated back to a time in our local history when one and two-room schoolhouses dotted the landscape. Children walked to school in these days. The classrooms were heated by pot-bellied stoves. The drawers of the cabinet were packed so tight that it was somewhat difficult to retrieve individual registers. Dust and cobwebs had not diminished the value of these records. Names of parents appeared beside each student, along with places of residence. A preservation plan is now being developed for the safe-keeping of these valuable family history resources. The countless hours of record-keeping by these teachers from long ago will not have been in vain. These records are typically found by contacting the local school administration office.

School Records-Filing CabinetSchool Records-Drawer

3. Report Cards

School Records-Grade sheetWe are all familiar with this sometimes-feared record set. Many of us can relate to the trepidation we felt as we submitted our report cards to our parents for review every six to nine weeks. Would our grades withstand the scrutiny of our parents’ watchful eyes? Would they note the number of times we were tardy to class? What had our teachers written in the comment section? We may have breathed a sigh of relief upon realizing there was nothing incriminating written on the pages of our report cards. The signature of our parents served as a stamp of approval, which we dutifully returned to our teachers.

This record set is most often found within the walls of our own homes. There are times we may be tempted to dispose of any evidence of poor behavior or less-than-perfect grades, but these records serve to tell our stories and inspire our descendants. They may learn that perfection is not necessary for success, or that even their parents and grandparents were sometimes caught talking in class.

4. Newspapers

Local newspapers are essential in researching the histories of our local schools, sports, and other countless activities that accompany student life. Small town newspapers are well-known for covering special events and recognitions that otherwise might go unreported in larger cities. These smaller newspapers celebrate the victories of their local students and proudly intertwine school news with other important headlines.

Many schools publish their own newspapers, offering students a taste of what life would be like in the world of media and deadlines. Creativity and responsibility are cultivated in the environment of a school newspaper classroom. Early issues of a local Marion Senior High School newspaper tell the story of what it was like to be a high school student during World War II. One of the headlines in the May 22, 1944, issue of The Hurricane Junior, was particularly interesting.

Excerpt from The Hurricane Junior newspaper

“Four Seniors Now Serve in U.S. Navy: Four members of the senior class are now on active duty in Uncle Sam’s forces. All four—James Snavely, Don Starling, Charles Daniels, and Herman Gullion—are volunteers in the Navy.

“James Snavely, the first to volunteer, received his ‘boot training’ at Bainbridge, Maryland, and is now studying to become a radio operator. Charles Daniels was initiated into the ways of the Navy at Sampson, New York, and is also studying radio engineering. Don Starling and Herman Gullion volunteered at the same time and were sent to the Great Lakes Training Station together. Both are now in the medical corps.

“Back home on recent furloughs, the boys found a warm welcome at the high school and were much in demand as speakers in their English and history classes, where they told of their new experiences.

“The senior class is proud of its first recruits, as well as of all the former Marion boys in the service, and wishes them all the luck in the world.”

How amazing it would be for the grandchildren of these men to discover this article decades later! Look for these records at your local historical society, library, newspaper office, and school.

5. Teacher Scrapbooks/Records

Teachers are a special group of individuals. They typically do not enter the profession for money. Instead, they have a passion for educating and are emotionally invested in the success of their students. It is no wonder that many of them maintain scrapbooks, or other collections, detailing the lives of the students they taught.

Last year, I learned that my former high school band director maintained impeccable records of his 30 years of service. He and his wife had preserved band programs, travel itineraries, competition notes, newspaper clippings, and countless photographs of three decades’ worth of band students. This collection was scanned and made available to the community via a Flickr album. It was met with great enthusiasm and appreciation for not only his years of dedicated service, but his preservation of the band’s history.

6. Yearbooks/School Photos

Yearbooks are some of the most sought-after school records. They contain the photographic history of not only a school, but the surrounding community. Upon discovering a yearbook for one of our parents or grandparents, we anxiously turn pages, looking for a familiar face or name. The sensation of being met with a younger version of a beloved countenance sometimes moves us to tears. Youth is brought into full view. We discover who they were before the responsibilities of adulthood demanded their full attention. The answers to these questions may be found in a yearbook: What clubs had they joined? Did they play any sports? Did they have a nickname? Who were their friends?

Old school yearbooks for genealogyThe experience of finding my great-grandfather, Francis McMurray, in a University of Michigan yearbook was one accompanied with great emotion. I had only ever seen pictures of him taken later in life. Based on these photos, I had a clear vision of a serious businessman. His yearbook photo offered a different perspective. I saw a much younger man in a baseball uniform, seated next to his teammates, with a full head of hair. In that moment, my perception of him changed. This experience taught me that our ancestors are much more complex than one snapshot, or one story that has been told. As we discover new records and new photographs, we gain a greater understanding of who they truly were. Our picture becomes more complete.

Most local libraries, historical societies, State Archives, and schools will have collections of yearbooks and school photos.

Just as each school year has a beginning, each school career has an ending. The records of these school years can offer some of the most satisfying discoveries in our family history research and should not be overlooked. I discovered a nostalgic reflection on school life in a college yearbook. It was written by my Uncle Weldon, who served as the editor. It stands as one more example of what treasures await us as we delve into these sometimes-neglected records. Perhaps, if he took me on a tour of his old high school, these would be the words I would hear. “We enter and we leave, taking with us memories that can only be forgotten by death. The school will always keep behind its solemn brick face our memories locked within its walls. Our voices will not cease to roar down the hollow halls, because our spirits live forever.”

Preserving the school records of your community

What success have you had in researching school records? Have you formed more emotional connections with your ancestors, thanks to these records? What is being done in your community to preserve these valuable collections? We’d love to hear from you! Share below in the comments if you’ve made a discovery in school records, and how you’re using them to share your family history with future generations.

Margaret Linford

Margaret Linford

Margaret Linford is a professional genealogist who specializes in the Mid-South Region of United States research and has logged over 20,000 research hours. Born and raised in Virginia, she has enjoyed traveling the world, and now lives in her childhood hometown with her husband and children. She enjoys teaching her children about heritage, taking them along on research trips and serving as President of the Smyth County Genealogical Society.

German Place Names: Find Your Ancestors’ Hometown with This Free Online Tool

German Place Names for Ancestral VillagesGerman place names have changed dramatically over time, so it can be challenging to identify your German ancestors’ place of origin. This free online tool helps family historians navigate changes in German place names, jurisdictions, and boundaries.

Thank you to guest expert Timo Kracke; see his biography below.

German Place Names:
Why So Challenging?

Researchers with ancestors from Germany or former German territories might have already stumbled over the problems presented by the border, place name, and jurisdictional changes that occurred throughout history.

Here’s an example: If you are researching in a village which belonged to Silesia before the end of World War II, you’ll find that the village name has now changed from the German name to a Polish name. It also might be possible that the archive holding the records of your ancestral village has changed due to a change in the village’s civil or ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

If you dive a bit deeper into German history you will discover that, over time, a lot of changes took place. It is essential to understand the jurisdictional structure in Germany, the meaning of a parish, a municipality and a place’s borders. So how can you find out more about German and former German places? Let’s dive into a fantastic free tool that will help you navigate these confusing changes, and identify your ancestors’ homelands.

The GOV: Free Tool for Help Finding German Place Names

The GOV (Geschichtliches Ortsverzeichnis) will guide you through all these different aspects of place identification in Germany. The GOV is one of many free databases on the web servers of CompGen, Germany’s largest genealogical society. The society focuses today on using technology to gather, preserve, and ensure access to genealogical data. (Don’t forget you can use Google Translate to help you with these websites! And if you’re using a Chrome browser, just right-click on the webpage and select “Translate to English.”)

GOV provides genealogists, historians, and sociologists with a unique worldwide place ID and access to high-quality place information. Using a simple search engine, you can search for current and previous place names and identify a place on a map, if GOV lists more than one possible match.

You’ll also find plenty of information about the places themselves. This information includes the geographical location of a place (coordinates or a position on a map); key properties such as the postal code, previous or other names; and past administrative, legal, and religious affiliations. You can also learn about a place’s demographics, historical and genealogical sources related to the place, and find links to external information. Source citations are included for information within the GOV.

If you’re wondering just how complex place identification could it be, let me give you the example of the village of Ketschdorf. This chart shows the evolution of the parish and municipal jurisdictions of Ketschdorf. Before the end of WWII, the place belonged to Silesia, during which time it had several different jurisdictions. of the parish and the municipality during that time. [Editor’s note: Click the image to enlarge a bit more. It’s tough to make this graphic big enough for close reading–but I think you get the idea of how complex it was! The modern Ketschdorf is the tiny light purple circle on the very bottom of the graphic.]


More about CompGen for German genealogy

  • The site digitizes, indexes, and publishes worthwhile genealogical source material, including private family trees, local heritage books, historical address books, personal newspaper announcements and images of headstones. The digital library includes scans of more than 900 historical address books.
  • It’s free! Their online databases (with more than 40 million entries) are a well-known support for all family historians.
  • Its genealogical wiki (http://genwiki.de) is one of the biggest wikis in Germany and provides a wealth of information about doing genealogy in Germany. They also host a forum and mailing lists and publish two print magazines.

Dive Deeper into German Place Names

Compgen is just one of the tools that can help you find your Germany ancestor’s hometown. Learn even more about German history and place names with the Mastering German Place Names class from Family Tree Magazine. German expert Jim Beidler will cover how German history has impacted place names, how to use German phonetics to find the correct places, how to choose between places with identical names, and more! This 30-minute webinar download will have you dissecting geographical terms and administrative divisions so you can find your ancestors in their German homeland.

About the Author: Timo Kracke has about 20 years of experience in genealogy. Timo volunteers for several German societies and is a board member with the Verein für Computergenealogie e.V. and Oldenburgische Gesellschaft für Familienkunde e.V. Since 2012 Timo is the voice of the German Podcast “der Genealoge.“ In 2014 he started “die Familienforscher“, a Kids-Genealogy project which publishes guides and ideas for involving kids in genealogy for use in kindergartens, schools, and genealogical societies. Timo is a tech guy who is active in several social networks and loves to share his knowledge with the community.


Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

Improvements to MyHeritage DNA

improvements at myheritage DNAYou’ve taken your DNA test for genealogy and anxiously waited for your results. When they arrive, you dive into the ethnicity pie chart. Then matches start rolling in and it can become a little overwhelming to make sense of it all and the benefit it can provide to your genealogy.

Thankfully the DNA testing companies are not only focused on advances in testing, but also in creating tools that make it easier for you to interpret and use your results.

MyHeritage DNA continues to release improvements to their DNA product that are meant to both enhance our experience with their website and make it easier to do our genetic genealogy work. You’ll also find an improved presentation of your genetic information that makes it easier to share with your relatives.

The MyHeritage DNA Overview Tab

Just recently MyHeritage DNA announced the addition of new filters for their match page and a bit of a redesign. The small redesign includes moving the ethnicity estimate into a tab right next to the DNA matches tab, as well as adding an Overview tab.

For any relatives who you have convinced to test, but who only show a passing interest in the actual genetic genealogy research, this Overview tab is a great way to show them their results without overwhelming them. There is a simple rundown of the ethnicity results, and then matches are broken up by relationship level and location.

MyHeritage DNA Overview tab


The MyHeritage DNA Location Feature

It is this location feature that will most interest the casual investigator, as well as the serious researcher. This filter lets you see the current location (note: NOT the birth location, though according to the MyHeritage blog post they plan to add birth location in a future update) of your DNA matches. Now, of course, this isn’t an active GPS that is spying on your match, but this tool relies on the location that your match has listed as their location in their MyHeritage account.

MyHeritage DNA Location

First, it is interesting just to scroll through all of the listed countries and see the variety of locations where your DNA is currently residing. Just think about that for a second: If you are DNA matching with someone in Germany, that means that you are sharing some exact pieces of DNA with someone in Germany and a little bit of you is actually there. This can make for a fascinating exercise when you compare this list of match locations to the locations listed in your ethnicity results. Remember that your ethnicity results can represent your ancestral locations recently, or a very long time ago. So if you see locations on your match list that also appear in your ethnicity results, this might be a good indication that the overlapping location might actually belong in your genealogy. Or the absence of overlap might help you weed out those ethnicities that were thousands of years ago. For example, if you see that your ethnicity results list you as 2% Greek, but you don’t have any DNA matches in Greece, this could mean that your connection to this location is before genealogical time. Of course, it could also mean that the right people from Greece haven’t tested yet, so don’t get too caught up in these deductions.

“If you are DNA matching with someone in Germany,
that means that you are sharing some exact pieces of DNA with someone in Germany
and a little bit of you, is actually there.”

MyHeritage DNA Ethnicities

The last section in the Overview, and the last filter for your match list, shows you how many of your matches are reporting at least 10% of various ethnicities. This might be helpful if you are working your Irish lines, as you can click on Irish, Scottish, and Welsh and see all of your DNA matches who report at least 10% in the Irish, Scottish, and Welsh category.

Combining MyHeritage DNA Filters

Another powerful way to use the filters at MyHeritage is to combine them. On the main match page, you can click on two different filters to further refine your results. So perhaps if you are looking for your Irish ancestor, you might click on the Irish location filter, and then also on the Irish, Scottish, and Welsh ethnicity filter. This will give you all your matches who currently live in Ireland, and who score at least 10% in the Irish, Scottish, and Welsh category.

Of course, the matches that show up after all the filtering aren’t necessarily worth your time or attention. Begin by taking a quick look at how much shared DNA you have. You will want to be sure that you share at least 20 cM before you go spending too much time scouring their pedigree charts for evidence of a shared ancestor.

Likely these filters will continue to improve over time. One thing I would like to see is the ability to use the relationship filter to isolate third cousins, instead of always lumping them with the distant cousins. Most of us don’t have very mysteries in the Extended Family (1st cousins once removed – 2nd cousins once removed) category, so I personally don’t find this filter to be very useful. I would like to see them allow us to filter our best third and fourth cousins out from the rest of our distant matches. Hopefully, MyHeritage can make some refinements in those categories, and thereby make their powerful idea of a two-pronged filter even more effective.

Stay tuned to the Genealogy Gems blog where you will hear updates about MyHeritage DNA (and other DNA testing companies) as they are announced. If you want help in getting more from your DNA test results and using the powerful tools at MyHeritage, my new quick reference guide MyHeritage DNA is available alone or bundled with other DNA resources at the Genealogy Gems store here.  Premium eLearning Members can watch the Premium Video Get the Most our of MyHeritage DNA (and download the exclusive handout!) in the Premium Video section here at Genealogy Gems (subscription and sign in required).

What’s your experience using these tools at MyHeritage DNA? Please join the conversation and leave a comment below.

About the Author: Diahan Southard has worked with the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation, and has been in the genetic genealogy industry since it has been an industry. She holds a degree in Microbiology and her creative side helps her break the science up into delicious bite-sized pieces for you. She’s the author of a full series of DNA guides for genealogists.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

A Genealogy Speaker’s Life

Join me for a peek inside this speaker’s life. Last week I was in Provo, Utah for the BYU Conference on Family History & Genealogy, with production assistant (and awesome daughter!) Hannah by my side. It was a full week of teaching (6 sessions), interviewing, and visiting with an enthusiastic group of genealogists. We also managed to fit in some mother / daughter time in majestic Sundance, Utah. Click here to see if I’ll be speaking near you, then scroll down for the slide show:

One of 6 presentations at BYU
Lisa speaking at the BYU Family History Conference

One of 6 presentations at the BYU Family History Conference.

Interview Time
Lisa interviews Joe Everett of BYU Family History Library

Interview Time: Joe Everett of the BYU Family History Library

Free Time at Sundance, Utah
sundance byu family history conference

The entrance to Sundance, Utah

Lisa and Hannah
Lisa and Hannah at Sundance and BYU

Free Time during the BYU Family History Conference

Hannah in her element!
Hannah photographing Sundance

Hannah in her element!

A River Runs Through It
a river runs through it sundance

A River Runs Through It

About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke

About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke

Lisa is the Producer and Host of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, an online genealogy audio show and app. She is the author of the books The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Mobile Genealogy, How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers, and the Google Earth for Genealogy video series, an international keynote speaker, and producer of the Family Tree Magazine Podcast.

Share Stories this Summer

He was the “new good-looking” Ken that would <swoon> talk to you, and in 1970 I was listening!

What did your Ken say to you?

We’ve all got stories to tell. This summer “say many different things” about your family history to your kids.
Have fun with it, and help them understand that they are part of something bigger. 

Have a wonderful week!

About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke

About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke

Lisa is the Producer and Host of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, an online genealogy audio show and app. She is the author of the books The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Mobile Genealogy, How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers, and the Google Earth for Genealogy video series, an international keynote speaker, and producer of the Family Tree Magazine Podcast.

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