Today is my first day of classes at the University of North Florida, so I thought I would take the time I have before I need to go to class to post some thoughts on school records, and my experiences with them. Let's start with items you might find at home, in your family papers.
I have to be grateful for the packrat gene in my family, especially on my husband's side. Not only do we have his elementary and high school report cards, we have his father's. I am only semi-packrat, as I have only my high school report cards. Report cards can provide some good information about an ancestor, such as possibly the home address (depending on the form the school used and how fully they filled it out), the name of the school, the town or county where the school was located, the years the student attended the school, what courses the student took and, of course, the student's grades. There will also generally be signatures of one or both parents.
My husband and I also have our college transcripts. These show, again, the name of the institution and the city in which it was located, the student's campus address and sometimes the home address, the courses the student took, the academic term (months and year), and the student's grades and grade point average.
Another good source of information is the school or college yearbook. This will show, again, the name of the institution and where it was located, the year of the book and the grade-level of the student, and will usually have at least one photograph of the student, with a list of extra-curricular activities and perhaps a chosen quotation or other bit of trivia. If the student participated in extra-curricular activities, there may be more photos. My husband and I attended rival high schools, and we each have the yearbook from our senior year. I also have two high school yearbooks from the 1920s, which were my uncle's, and I have my father's senior yearbook. Extra-curricular activities can give insight into an ancestor's character and aspirations. My father, for example, was a member of his high school's Aero Club (students interested in learning to fly), and later, as a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he took flight training and became a Naval aviator.
College yearbooks are also a good source of information, with much the same information as the high school yearbooks. I have my senior yearbook from Florida State University, which was the 1968-1969 year, and my husband has one or two of his college yearbooks. I have my grandfather's yearbook from Wabash College in Indiana, and my father's yearbook from the Naval Academy, the 1934 Lucky Bag.
If you are fortunate enough to have had an ancestor who was a big packrat, you may also find some of his or her high school or college papers. You may determine from this the subjects your ancestor was most interested in, and may also see what sort of writer he or she was!
Another good source is photographs, both the "official" photos and candids. I have photos ranging from elementary school field trips, showing me and my friends and the places we visited, to college foolery -- being dunked in the fountain at the student union, or clowning around in the scholarship house. The official graduation photos may be in folders or frames with the name of the institution and the year, and possibly the name of the student, printed on them. At the very least, hope that the photo has been identified on the back!
Finally, there may be among your family papers degree or diploma certificates. These, again, show the name of the institution, the student's name, and the year, along with the degree granted (A.A., B.A., Ph.D., etc.) and possibly the course of study.
After exhausting the family sources, the next stop might be the public library. Look for yearbooks from the years your ancestor attended the school. These may be found in the general collection, or in a special local or state history collection. Check newspaper indexes for news of your ancestor's school years. He or she may have been an accomplished athlete, or may have participated in organizations or activities that caught the attention of the local paper. A county or town history might have general background information on the school the ancestor attended.
The county school board or even the particular school, if it is still open, may have information on your ancestor. Information availability might be governed by regulations concerning privacy in this age of identity-theft paranoia, but presenting your case pleasantly can go far. The farther back the record is, possibly the easier it will be to obtain. It may be more productive to go in person to the school board or school, rather than trying to conduct the search by telephone or letter. Physical presence can count for a lot. I hope one day to go to Logansport, Indiana, to Logansport High School, which my maternal grandfather and possibly my grandmother attended, to find the yearbook. I hope it will have photographs of them, because copies of such photographs will be the only photos I would ever have of my maternal grandparents.
Those are some possible avenues for research in school records. Now it is time for me to get ready for class.