Study Up on School Records for Success

(By Grace Dumelle, originally published in The FOGCutter Volume 6, Issue 1, January 2002.

Chicago Board of Education materials can be a treasure trove for information on living as well as deceased persons. Public school records in other cities and towns also have similar types of information on teachers and students.

The Newberry holds annual reports of the Board of Education starting in 1859 (call no. I68926.27). The early years of these reports list teachers’ names, the school they worked at, and their home addresses. Later years often include photographs of newly built schools and other points of pride — the 1899 volume, for example, contains many interior views, such as a kindergarten classroom and an assembly hall. The Board of Education Proceedings (call no. I68962.26) lists names of all elementary, high school, and teachers’ college graduates each school year. The 1933-34 volume continuing through the 1971-72 volume lists birthdates for all elementary-school graduates. As you probably know, the Cook County Birth Index ends in 1916. But the Proceedings list birthdates from 1913-1959, making them a marvelous source for still-living persons.

For example, I used the Proceedings to locate a long-lost relative for a client in Sweden. The client wanted to find his half-sister Viola in Chicago. He wasn’t sure if she was still alive and had very little to go on. He gave me a few addresses in the old Swedish neighborhood around Belmont and Clark, where his father lived with his first wife and daughter Viola before returning to Sweden and starting a new family in the late 1930s. He wasn’t sure of Viola’s mother’s name, or the date when his father married her. He didn’t know Viola’s married name. But he knew Viola graduated from high school in 1944, though he didn’t know which one. All the relatives that could have supplied information were dead.

Working on the high school angle, I went to the Harold Washington Library Center and looked at the Proceedings for 1944-45 (the Newberry’s holdings end with 1916-17) for possible high schools based on where the family lived. Sure enough, Viola was listed at Lake View High School. In the 1939-40 volume, I pored through the elementary school listings. Viola’s distinctive first name enabled me to pick her out of all the other students of the same last name and get her birthdate. With this and authorization from my client, I was able to get a copy of her birth certificate listing her parents. I was then able to obtain her parents correct marriage record.

The next step was to find out what had happened to Viola since 1944. I contacted the high school to see if they had old school records or yearbooks that might indicate Viola’s post-graduation plans. They had something better — an alumni association. Its president told me Viola was on his mailing list — the first indication I had that she was still alive. He allowed me to forward a letter to her, and she contacted me a few days after she received it. Viola was “thunderstruck” to learn her half-brother was searching for her. She consented to his writing her, and now they are in regular contact.

It just goes to show you how studying school records can bring together people thousands of miles apart.

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