Have you explred school records for your ancestors? Did you know these can serve as a partial alternative to the loss of the 1890 census? Learn how to find your ancestors in the school records.
Genealogy Research,  How To Trace Your Family Tree

Getting Started With School Records for Genealogy Research

Explore school records for genealogy research and discover clues to finding your ancestors. School census records, yearbooks & more!

Ancestors can be found in school records? 


From my office window, I watch the neighborhood children walk to school each morning. They are so cute! I also cannot believe how much these neighborhood kids have grown! They are also a reminder our ancestors did the same thing.

Education was important to many of our ancestors. It might have been limited to only a few years. It may have been sporadic due to seasonal farming activities.

One thing is for sure, it looked different from what our children experience today. However, just like our schools today, the schools our ancestors attended kept records.

School records exist and can potentially provide a wealth of information to you the genealogy researcher.

Types of School Records To Use In Your Genealogy Research

Quite a few types of school records will benefit your genealogical research. 


School census records or the school registers list the students who attended the school and when they attended.  The age of the student is often included and from that a birth date can be inferred.  Some school registers list a parent’s name and even a parent’s occupation!  When  a parent’s name is listed, you can determine sibling and family groups.

Below is an example of the 1890 school census for Ashe County, NC.

1890 School census for Ashe County, NC
1890 Ashe County, NC School Census

Notice only the parent or guardian is listed along with the number of male and female children enrolled in the school.  

Close up view of 1890 School census for  Ashe County, NC
1890 Ashe County, NC School Census – Close Up View

In the absence of the 1890 federal census, a school census can be a partial substitute for the  1890 census. 

Here is another example from the 1860 Granville County, NC school register.

This excerpt records the names of the pupils along with their ages and the days they attended school. School records are also a source for finding your female ancestor! A school register can place her time and place and even a family group. Notice the first 5 children in our example all have the last name Hunt. We might hypothesize they are related, but we do not know how from this page.

The excerpt from an 1860 Granville County school census record records the names of the pupils along with their ages and the days they attended school. For the researcher looking for an elusive female ancestor, a school register can provide valuable information.
1860 Granville County, NC School Register Excerpt

Reading across to the second page, we find the parent or guardian’s name is  AND their occupation!

The excerpt from an 1860 Granville County school census record records the names of the pupils along with their ages and the days they attended school. For the researcher looking for an elusive female ancestor, a school register can provide valuable information.
1860 Granville County, NC School Register Excerpt (page 2)

The first two children James and Susan Hunt are the children of Joseph P Hunt (farmer).  The other three children are siblings and the children of George W Hunt. Likely these two Hunt families are related, and now it’s the researcher’s task to determine what that relationship is.


Go back to school with your ancestors! Explore school census records, yearbooks and more to find your ancestors.
1915 The Sphinx -The Citadel of Charleston, SC Yearbook (Source: Ancestry.com)

Yearbooks will provide information and of course, photographs of the students, the faculty and the teachers.  You may well find collateral cousins in the yearbook as well. Often the families lived close together and would have attended the same schools.

Greensboro High School Yearbook 1954
1954 Greensboro [NC] High School (Source: Ancestry.com)

If you are fortunate enough to have your ancestor’s personal yearbook, do not forget to look at any notes or autographs in the yearbook.  These can show who was important to your ancestor and potentially point to other family members.


Student newspapers tell more about the student life of the school or area schools. The school newspaper is another source to learn about what was important to the students and your ancestor at the time. Remember that social history I talk so much about? The school newspaper is another source!

1910 School newspaper from Wasuau, WI
The High School Reporter – Wausau, Wisconsin (Source: Ancestry.com)


The annual reports for the schools  are created by the county superintendents and presented to the board of education. (The names of the reports and the governing school body will vary from state to state. ) Potentially included in a report is a list of Honor Roll Teachers, List of Students for Perfect Attendance, Graduation Lists, Perfect Spellers, and Library Certificates.  

Information and statistics on the county such as the number of homes with running water and number of homes with a telephone are found, too.  This information provides the researcher with important information about the community, too.


Though not as often thought about, report cards contain important genealogical information, too. From a report card, the child’s age and birth year can be approximated.  Often the custom was (and still is) for the parent to sign  a child’s report card.  This provides the researcher with a parent/guardian name and a signature.  This signature could be important in later research for comparisons.

Old 1930's report card for Elma Talbott
Source: Private Collection of Lisa Talbott Lisson

This 1930-1931 report card for Elma Talbott of South Boston, VA provides her father’s name and original signature.

Where Do You Find School Records For Genealogy Research?

Now that you know what types of records are out there, where do you find them? School records can be found in a variety of locations.  County and states will vary by what they have available, but start with these ideas.  Be creative in your search process.


Ask your family members including your more distant cousins, too! This is often an overlooked step in the research process. You may be surprised at what they kept and passed down. The report card above and this grade promotion certificate below were among our family’s keepsakes.

School promotion certificate for Crafton Talbott 1928
Source: Private Collection of Lisa Talbott Lisson


Ask former alumni or long time community residents if they have yearbooks or other school memorabilia.  Your ancestors could be in them.


If the school your ancestors attended is still in operation, check with them for yearbooks and other public records. If the school is no longer in operation, check with the local school board where the records might be.

Old black and white photo of a large school
Source: Library of Congress


Often local historical societies and museums will have  information on local schools past and present including old yearbooks. Along the same lines, check for pertinent historical sites in your area.  An example would be the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum emphasizing African-American education in North Carolina.


State archives often have school records. Check their online collections as well. You could have a successful search sitting in your own home.


Check the university special collections in the area where your ancestors lived. Be sure and talk to the librarian!  They can point you in the right direction and give you other ideas for your search.

Use ArchiveGrid in your search of special collections!


School records are a great addition to your genealogy toolbox! We are going beyond the traditional yearbooks and reports to delve into a variety of school records in search of your ancestors. This is "out of the genealogy box" research.

Ancestry.com has school records! The best way to find them is by using Ancestry’s card catalog.  School records can also be found at FindMyPast and MyHeritage.

With a quick search of Ancestry’s card catalog for school records, 277 results came up for the US.  Yearbooks, student lists, directories and school age certificates all appear in the first few results!  These are definitely “out of the genealogy box” records!

Add school records to your genealogy research process!  You will be richly rewarded ( and have a lot of fun in the process.)

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  • Linda Stufflebean

    Modern school records might not be so easy to find. I graduated from high school in 1970 and when I asked about obtaining a copy of my school file, I was told they were destroyed after X (maybe 10?) number of years. I actually got photocopies of my elementary school records because we moved from one town to another when I was in the sixth grade. Because I didn’t finish the school year there, my records were stored in the basement in file cabinets and not sent on anywhere else. They apparently only photocopied my file to send on to my new school. I feel very lucky to have copies of my kindergarten reading skills tests and notes by my teachers that I had to be prodded to talk!

    • LisaL

      You make a good point, Linda. A modern student’s personal record will not likely be saved or if it is not public. Thanks for pointing that out.

      • Loraine Goodhue

        I was shocked. Most school records (School Attendance Records – transcripts-Health Records-Awards) are supposed to be kept 100 years and put on microfilm. For those parents, grandparents and others make sure your school boards are advised of this for future generations. Records should be held in file cabinets 1 year then transferred to microfilm. If one wants to digitize for day to day useage that can be done at any time, but your microfilm is your base program. Please, Please get that word out to everyone and anyone. It is history! (Historian and Preservation is my line of work)

        • LisaL

          Thanks so much for this, Loraine! Privacy for individuals is of utmost importance. I should clarify (and I apologize for any confusion), in talking about “school records”, I’m not including transcripts and health records. I’ve never seen these (outside of when I worked for a school system), nor would I expect to. The report cards and awards can sometimes be found among a family’s keepsakes. Thanks, again!

          • Joann Scala Pagliaro

            Hello Lisa L

            I came upon this website through a google search . I would love to look up my parents educational history schools they attended. I would also like to share a photo of my late mother she could be your twin .

  • Debby Putman

    Another initial source that lead me to the highschool in Pennsylvania was a class ring. On the side of it was the impression of the actual building and the other was the year. We only knew generally where the family was from at this point and were cleaning up the ring to give to his grandson when we noticed the clues. The building no longer stands but checking with different local museums as you suggest not only helped us find the school but they had the yearbooks and were happy to make copies of our ancestor’s pages including his nick name and what he aspired to be. Gold!

    • LisaL

      What a great story! I had not even thought about using a class ring, but you really thought outside of the genealogy box. Well done!

  • Carolyne Lain

    I have made a cursory scan of school records information and found only US information. What about Canadian (Ontario) school records? Where do I find those? There seems to be an abundance of information on US genealogical search categories, but precious little about Canadian genealogical search categories, which is frustrating.

    • LisaL

      Carolyne, Ancestry.com has some Canadian school records including yearbooks and what looks like a type of school census or listings. It seems hit or miss though. Contact the Canadian archives and ask what type of school records would have been kept and where they are currently kept.

  • Elaine Behrendt

    I have my Mothers High School yearbook from 1923! So fun to read all what some wrote in it. She was evidently in school plays and the comments were about her and how others liked her and wanted her to go on to the “big city”…she wanted to but her parents balked at that….

  • Brady Fitts

    In some cases you may not know the school your ancestor attended. I have found that many county historical or genealogical societies have published county heritage books in many states where families place their family history with photos and genealogy. In many cases they also mention the schools the children attended. This has helped me in getting a photo of relatives that I did not have from yearbooks. Yes, I alway check and confirm what is in print in these books, I use them as a referrance only.

  • Pam

    On a trip to Colorado, we toured the South Park City museum – where you walk through the old buildings in the old town. In their School House building, they had behind Plexiglas on display an old grade book along with text books and other artifacts of the school. I wonder if these are scanned somewhere? I wonder if someone who needs them would be able to search them?
    You never know where you will find records. Keep your eyes open!

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