Archival Adventures in Small Repositories
Learning from School Records
When researching family history, there are a variety of resources through which genealogists can discover information. Some of the most popular materials used include vital records, census records, and ship passenger lists. Another information resource, which many would not initially think to use, is school records.
School records often provide information about attendance, enrollment, and the activities of the school. The Plumstead Historical Society in Bucks County, Pennsylvania has a large collection of records from the Plumstead Township schools, as well as some records of the Central Bucks Joint School Board, which Plumstead joined after consolidating its schools in 1959.
A school house in Plumstead Township
The bulk of the Plumstead Township School Board records, 1836-1964 (bulk 1861-1941), are school attendance registers for Plumstead Township. The attendance registers, which include teacher's monthly reports, date from 1861 to 1937 and are organized by school, of which there are a dozen.
Attendance records can be helpful to family researchers not only because they list the names of teachers and students at the school, but also because they can help provide context about the life of an ancestor. If a student was absent, a teacher might have written down in the attendance record what the reason for the absence was, such as moving or an illness or death in the family. This kind of information could also offers clues about where the researcher should look next.
A permit for an excused absence due to farm work or domestic service
The Plumstead Township attendance records also include forms such as the one shown above, a permit for an excused absence in April of 1922 for about 10 days because the student was either going to be working on a farm or in domestic service at a private home. These permits also provide other types of valuable information such as the name of the school last attended by the student (Southwestern), what grade level the student had completed (seventh), and information about the parents of the student. In this case, there are no names or ages for the parents, instead the father listed as “elsewhere,” and the mother is listed as deceased.
While school records like attendance registers can be a great supplemental source for genealogical research, they can also help historians determine trends in the education system over the years. For example, in more rural communities, a larger number of students may have attended school in the winter because they were not busy with harvesting or planting crops. Historians may also be interested in other types of school records such as administrative and financial material, like board minutes and budgets, which could shed light on school operations and changes in educational priorities.
Other records of the Plumstead Township School Board and its successor, the Central Bucks Joint School Board, that are available at the Plumstead Historical Society include: financial documents such as treasurer's reports, salary proposals, bills, accounts, and budget reports; school tax materials; correspondence; board reports; meeting agendas (Central Bucks Joint School Board, 1961-1964); correspondence; and newspaper clippings. There is also a minute book of the School Directors of the Township of Plumstead (1836-1882) and a photo album with pictures of many Plumstead students.
In addition to school records, the Plumstead Historical Society has a local history collection with a mixture of primary and secondary-source material relating to the history and residents of Plumstead Township, including oral histories, 19th century daybooks from local businesses, and ephemera.
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