Ciara Cetraro isn’t taking a day off.
The 17-year-old Konawaena High School senior will not be participating in any Ferris Bueller-esque shams over the next three weeks. Instead, she’s determined to earn a distinction that can sometimes elude even the most driven students.
Cetraro, of Kailua-Kona, hasn’t missed a day of school since kindergarten and plans to graduate May 19 with perfect attendance.
After receiving quarterly and yearly awards for perfect attendance in elementary school, Cetraro was determined to continue to keep her attendance record spotless. Eventually not missing class and making every day count shifted from a goal to a habit, she said.
“I never did this for the recognition or awards. It’s always been a personal choice and a hard habit to break,” she said. “School is very important to me and I like it. I’ve always been afraid of possibly missing something. I just wanted to try my best, learn as much as I can and continually improve myself. By not missing a single day of school, I get the opportunity to build on and broaden my knowledge.”
It’s that discipline and attitude that has helped Cetraro become one of the class valedictorians. She is also president and treasurer of the school’s National Honor Society chapter, captain of the Konawaena Wildcat cheerleading squad, senior class vice president and Go Green Environmental Club vice president.
Perfect attendance is “a remarkable feat,” said Board of Education Vice Chairman Brian DeLima, who represents Hawaii Island. A string of more than 2,000 days of school, uninterrupted by sickness, vacation, apathy or a myriad of other reasons, is an achievement earned by few students in Hawaii, where chronic absenteeism is “an epidemic.”
Approximately 12,000 of Hawaii’s public school students accrued 15 or more absences during the first half of the school year, which had 112 days. That’s 13 percent or more of days of learning missed, DeLima said.
“Studies show academic achievement drops significantly for students who miss 10 percent or more of a school year,” he said. “Chronic absenteeism is more than an early indicator that a student will eventually drop out of school; it’s symptomatic of bad habits in life.”
School attendance is a “crucial factor” to academic performance. Teachers can’t teach and engage students who don’t show up to learn, DeLima said.
Attacking and eliminating this problem requires the state Departments of Education and Human Services, the judiciary, law enforcement, families and the community. Consistent policies, intervention, student motivation, understanding the barriers, as well as public awareness about the importance of regular and improved attendance are also needed. Helping students see the connection between attendance and achievement, not just in school, but in life, is key, he said.
Cetraro thinks improving and encouraging attendance requires a more comprehensive approach, one that goes beyond sanctions. When Cetraro was in elementary school, she appreciated privileges like running in the sprinklers, being first in line for lunch or dismissal, having the chance to act as the teacher’s assistant and getting shave ice. She said these incentives served as powerful motivators.
Cetraro also said helping students, even those in elementary school, get excited about the future is important, as well as discussing, planning and working toward those goals now. She did something similar with Kahakai Elementary School fifth-graders for her senior project, a requirement for a DOE diploma.
DeLima also thinks personal transition plans, which focus on career exploration, assessments of strengths and interests, and goals and actions, should happen not just in high school, but earlier.
DeLima praised students like Cetraro for their motivation and discipline in maintaining perfect attendance records, as well as their commitment to education and valuing it. He also applauded their parents.
Cetraro said there were days when pursuing this feat was a challenge, but she kept her goal in sight. Sometimes Cetraro had to stand firm and ask teachers to correct roll calls that mistakenly indicated she was tardy because tardiness could eventually add up to an absence. Occasionally, vacations weren’t possible or rescheduled. She even ignored the temptations of senior ditch day.
Luckily, Cetraro had the constant support of her mom, Carol Nelson, and her close friends. Nelson, a part-time temporary teacher at Kahakai Elementary, encouraged Cetraro to meet her goal and kept the pursuit exciting. She also made sure her daughter didn’t oversleep and was prepared for school.
Cetraro also chalks her record up to good fortune. “I guess I’m lucky that I’ve never got deathly ill or injured that I couldn’t participate at school,” she said.
She’s not the only family member who can boast attendance perfection. Her brother, Nicolas, graduated last year with the same record and was a class valedictorian.
Cetraro continues to set malleable, yet ambitious goals for herself. She plans to study engineering and art history at either the University of Hawaii at Manoa or Arizona State University next fall. She offered Sunday encouragement to those searching for the motivation to continue reaching their goals.
“Never let anyone sway you from anything. Always stay true to yourself,” she said.