An Overlooked Resource to Determine Parentage

Here’s an often overlooked resource to help identify parentage – school records.  I’m not talking about yearbooks on Ancestry.com.  I mean the enrollment and attendance records that schools had to maintain to receive state and federal funding.  

To acquire those records, which are not available online, visit the school district’s website.  If there is a search bar, simply type in “records” or “school records.”  Follow the link which usually is for recent graduates of the school district needing to get a transcript for further education or work.  Obviously, you are searching for old records so find the phone number and make a call to see what will be required for you to get the documents.

In my area, a death certificate by a relative is needed but an attorney’s representative for the estate handing the deceased’s probate is also acceptable to receive the records.

Most districts have microfilmed their older records so you will not have your request fulfilled immediately.  There’s no telling what you’ll receive, either, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to check it out. I live in a state that has lots of record loss due to mold, flood damage, fires and insects.  Even with all the losses, there is usually some records that were able to be salvaged and scanned.

Recently, I assisted a client in obtaining school records from the 1950’s-1960’s in the hope of identifying parentage. The turnover time was a little over a week. Prior to the 1970’s, you’re not going to receive a birth certificate as most schools did not have a photo copier available to make a copy of that document at the time of enrollment.  The best you’re going to get is a check mark on a line that noted a birth certificate had been presented.  The name of the enrolling parent/guardian is then recorded on the document, along with the address where the student was residing.  You may even get lucky and have a telephone number recorded.

Once you have the parent/guardian name it’s time for you to check city directory records.  In my location, phone numbers were added in the mid-1950’s and I was able to match the telephone number on the school records to two different names not recorded in those records.  Was there an error in the school records in recording the phone number?  No, the information proved that the deceased had been involved with a social service agency and explained why the recorded schools’ names varied when the home address didn’t.  The student must have been temporarily living in either a foster home or with a relative but the parent still had the right to obtain school records so the enrollment address did not change.  The enrollment and withdrawal dates listed for the various schools attended provides evidence that the family was experiencing difficulty and gives more places, such as court records, to look for a better understanding of what was occurring.

In my situation, only one parent’s name was recorded in school records.  That individual was never found in the city directory but the name and telephone of the individual who purportedly lived at the address in school records was a clue to find the other parent’s name.  

The school records also contain a birth date for the student so a check of newspaper birth announcements for that date could lead to a further confirmation of parentage – or not.  In my case, there was no announcement so it was likely the student’s parents were not married at the time of birth as it was the local policy to not record in the paper the names of children of single mothers.  

School records will not provide every answer you seek but will point you in the direction of locating other records and help you gain insight into the life of the student and the parent/guardian.  

So, what do you do if the district says there are no records?  Don’t give up!  Next check Worldcat online to see if those records were published in a book and held at an archive somewhere.  On a trip to Boston a few years ago I spent a couple of hours at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. I decided to browse through the Indiana section.  I happily discovered a book that was a transcription of Lake County, Indiana school enrollments for the early 1900’s.  The book contained my husband’s grandmother’s name and who enrolled her in first grade – one of her older stepbrothers. That made sense, Elsie’s mother was a recent immigrant from Sweden with little knowledge of the school system.  The stepbrother, a graduate of that school district who was fluent in English was helping his stepmother with the enrollment while his father was at work.  I had tried to get Elsie’s school records from the county previously and was told they had been destroyed.  That was correct information; who knew that a transcription had been made of those records prior to their demise?  I later checked with the library in Lake County that has the largest genealogical section and they didn’t have a copy of the book that was sitting in Boston.  How strange that a record was located in a place the ancestor never visited.  Of course, original records are preferred but in this case, a transcription was better than nothing and did shed light on the family dynamics at the time of Elsie’s school enrollment.  Happy Hunting!

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