SEBRING - Graduate Jose Torres smiled, saying he had butterflies in his stomach as he and his fellow classmates prepared for the entrance processional at the recent Avon Park High School graduation ceremonies.
Like his fellow male classmates he wore a red cap and gown, but he also wore a silver cord, which signified that he was graduating Magna Cum Laude with a grade point average between 4.32 and 4.47.
By glancing at the names on the high school and South Florida State College graduation programs from recent years, it's evident that there are increasingly larger numbers of Hispanic graduates in Highlands County. Data shows the percentage increase significantly outpaces the increase in the Hispanic population.
Enrollment data from South Florida State College shows that the percentage of Hispanic students enrolled in associate of arts and associate of science degree programs more than doubled from 2001-02 to 2011-2012.
Hispanic enrollment was 12.87 percent in 2001-02, 18.07 percent in 2006-07 and 26.84 percent in 2011-12.
This increase was significantly more than would be expected from the increase in the Hispanic population in Highlands County, which increased from 12.1 percent in 2000 to 17.8 percent in 2011, according to U.S. Census data.
Torres will be a freshman at South Florida State College in August.
With a full four-year scholarship, he plans on transferring to the University of Central Florida to earn a master's degree as a nurse practitioner.
Both of his parents attended college in Puerto Rico, but they both dropped out, Torres noted.
He credited his mother with providing him the incentive to excel in his studies.
"She pushes me every day, because even though we don't live the best in our home, she knows that I have the knowledge and the will to succeed in the end," Torres said. "Even though school is over she is asking if I want to do any summer classes or if I scheduled my college classes. She still pushes me every day."
Torres said his mother tells him she doesn't want him to end up in a regular job like her with no profession.
"So hopefully in the future I can give a house to my mom," he said.
South Florida State College President Norm Stephens Jr. said, "We have certainly noticed that we have more Hispanic students at our college. Historically, Hispanic students have done well at the college."
In most of his 11 years at SFSC, the Hispanic graduation rate was higher than the other groups of students, he said.
The importance of education is stressed in Hispanic families, and locally the Take Stock in Children program has made a positive impact, Stephens noted.
Take Stock in Children, which has a high percentage of Hispanic students, has a graduation rate around 97 to 98 percent and a college admissions rate around 95 percent, he said.
Improved academic achievement among Hispanics is a nationwide phenomenon according to The Pew Research Center, which reports that Hispanic high school graduates have passed whites in the rate of college enrollment.
A record 69 percent of Hispanic high school graduates in the Class of 2012 enrolled in college that fall, 2 percentage points higher than the 67 percent rate among their white counter parts, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of data for the U.S. Census Bureau.
This milestone is the result of a long-term increase in Hispanic college-going accelerated with the onset of the recession in 2008, Pew Research reports. The rate among white high school graduates, by contrast, has declined slightly since 2008.
The positive trends in Hispanic educational indicators also extend to high school where the most recent available data shows that in 2011 only 14 percent of Hispanic 16- to 24-year-olds were high school dropouts, half the level in 2000 (28 percent), Pew Research reported.
The School Board of Highlands County's Hispanic dropout rate has dropped significantly from 6.3 percent in 2006-07 to 3.7 percent in 2011-12.
The Florida Department of Education announced recently that for the second year in a row, Florida ranks first in the country on the graduation index for Hispanic students, according to the 2013 Diplomas Count study.
Florida's graduation index for Hispanic students was 77.1 percent, besting the national rate of 68.1 percent.
Overall, Florida has posted a 23 percentage point gain in the index since 2000 - the nation's second largest increase, according to the FDOE.
A National Education Association report notes some of the challenges Hispanic students have faced.
Hispanics - on average - differ from non-Hispanic whites in family income, place of birth, language proficiency, family support, availability of role models and orientation toward the dominant culture. Individual and institutional racism and stereotyping also affect opportunity for Hispanic students, the report stated.
A number of reports from a few years ago stated that the achievement gap between whites and Hispanics had not changed.
So what factors have come into play recently to close the Hispanic achievement gap?
Pew states it is possible that the rise in high school completion and college enrollment by Hispanic youth has been driven in part by the declining job market. Another factor could be the importance that Latino families place on a college education, Pew reports.
According to a 2009 Pew Hispanic Center survey, 88 percent of Latinos ages 16 and older agreed that a college degree is necessary to get ahead in life today.