Pass or Fail in Cambodia Town

In “Pass or Fail in Cambodia Town,” host Maria Hinojosa visits Long Beach, California, where she finds a Southeast Asian community struggling with what one interviewee describes as a “trauma-informed history.” Far from the stereotype of Asians as a “model minority,” less than 65 percent of Cambodian adults in the United States have graduated from high school. Cambodia Town, a neighborhood in Long Beach, is a community plagued by poverty and gang violence.
Grade Level

America by the Numbers with Maria Hinojosa—a PBS documentary series—tells the story of the changing demographics of the United States through character-driven portraits and in-depth conversations. Host Maria Hinojosa, an award-winning news anchor and reporter, visits communities from Clarkston, Georgia, to Long Beach, California, to examine the impact of demographic changes on local residents.

In “Pass or Fail in Cambodia Town,” host Maria Hinojosa visits Long Beach, California, where she finds a Southeast Asian community struggling with what one interviewee describes as a “trauma-informed history.” Far from the stereotype of Asians as a “model minority,” less than 65 percent of Cambodian adults in the United States have graduated from high school. Cambodia Town, a neighborhood in Long Beach, is a community plagued by poverty and gang violence.

The young adults interviewed in this video are the children of refugees who fled the Khmer Rouge during the 1975-1979 genocide in Cambodia. Students consider the current struggles of these young adults against the backdrop of this history. More generally, students review risk factors for dropping out of high school and consider their own roles in encouraging others along the path to graduation. 


Enduring Understandings

  • The “trauma-informed history” of refugees may have residual consequences for their children.
  • As of 2014, 84 percent of high school students graduated in four years. However, only 74 percent of economically disadvantaged students graduate.


Essential Questions

  • What are the consequences for the next generation when parents are forced to flee their country as refugees?
  • What are the risk factors for dropping out of high school, and how can these risk factors be overcome?



Students will be able to:

  • identify issues faced by Cambodian refugees and their children.
  • describe the consequences of dropping out of high school.
  • identify the factors that put someone at risk of dropping out.
  • consider ways they can help support high school graduation.


Materials Needed



assetas et ] (noun) a useful or valuable person, thing or quality; in this lesson, used to describe something that offsets a risk factor

genocide [jen uh side] (noun) the deliberate, systematic extermination of a national or racial group

post-traumatic stress disorder [post  truh mat ik  stres  dis ôr duhr] (noun) a psychological condition caused by experiencing or witnessing a terrifying ordeal involving physical harm or threat of harm

refugeeref yoo jee ] (noun) a person who is forced to migrate from their community to another region or country in order to escape war, persecution or a natural disaster

risk factor [ risk  fak tuhr ] (noun) a characteristic that increases the chance of experiencing an injury or problem

trauma-informed historytrou muh  in fôrmd  his tuh ree ] (noun) in this video, used to describe how the traumatic experiences of an older generation affect a younger generation  



Introduce the essential questions. Explain to the students that, in this lesson, they’re going to consider high school graduation—in particular, who’s at risk for dropping out of high school and what can be done to prevent students from dropping out.

Give students two minutes to work with a partner to list reasons why high school graduation is important. Students should also write down their estimates of the percentage of U.S. students who graduate from high school in four years.

Ask the class to share their ideas about why completing high school is important, and list their responses where everyone can see.

Then ask students to identify by a show of hands the percentage of students they think graduate from high school: Ninety percent or greater? Eighty percent or greater? Seventy percent or greater? Sixty percent or greater? Below 60 percent?

Provide the answer: As of 2014, 82 percent of public high school students graduated in four years.

Note that this doesn’t tell the whole story, and then share the following statistics with students.

Public high school graduation rates, as of the 2013-14 school year, according to race/ethnicity*: 

  • American Indian/Alaska Native: 70 percent
  • Asian/Pacific Islander: 89 percent
  • Black: 73 percent
  • Hispanic: 76 percent
  • White: 87 percent

*These statistics reflect the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR), not averaged freshman graduation rate (AFGR).


Guided Viewing

Let students know that the video they are about to see explores life in a community in which many students do not graduate: Long Beach, California.

Distribute the “Cambodian Interviewees” handout. Read the instructions, noting that students should pay particular attention to family or community issues that might prove to be obstacles to finishing high school. Answer any questions students might have, and watch the video as a class. (Note: A Teacher’s Resource version has been provided to include possible responses.)


Talk About What You've Seen

Have students compare their responses in pairs. Then share findings as a group, prompting students to answer the following questions:

  • How are the lives of the students in the video similar to people you know? How are they different?
  • What was life like for Cambodians during the 1975-1979 rule of the Khmer Rouge?
  • What was life like for Cambodian refugees in Long Beach?
  • Community organizer Seng So describes the “trauma-informed history” of his generation (16:40). How have the young people interviewed been affected by what happened to their parents?


High School Dropout Prevention

Post a T-chart where all can see. Write “Dropout Risk Factors” at the top of the left side of the chart and “Dropout Prevention Assets” on the right side. Ask students to recall the “risk factors”—those that might prevent a student from graduating—that are described in the video, and list these on the left side of the chart.

Next, distribute the “High School Dropout Prevention” handout. Have students, individually or in pairs, read the first and second sections titled “What are the odds?” and “What are the risk factors?” and underline risk factors as they read. Return to the T-chart and ask students to add risk factors from the “High School Dropout Prevention” handout to the left side of the T-chart.

Then have students read the last section of the “High School Dropout Prevention” handout, “What ‘developmental assets’ might prevent dropping out of school?” Discuss the developmental assets listed, and then add them to the right side of the chart. You may wish to display the Search Institute’s complete list of assets and discuss them in more detail. Discuss the following questions as a class:

  • Which assets do students in your classroom think they possess? How did they acquire them?
  • Which of the assets might have been missing from the lives of the Cambodian students in the video? How did students in the video seek out missing assets on their own?
  • At what age do your students think these building blocks should be provided, and why? Who is responsible for making certain that students get what they need—physically and emotionally—to reach their full potential?


Do Something

Distribute the “Graduation by the Numbers” handout. Explain that, in this activity, students will be examining graduation rates closer to home, beginning with their own high school or district.

1. Demonstrate how to search for the graduation rate for your local high school. Then demonstrate how to use schooldigger.com or greatschools.org to find race/ethnicity and free lunch data. Explain that the percentage of free lunches at a school is often used to describe the income level of its population. Note: Some cities/states do not report graduation rates. In those cases, students can report on standardized text scores instead of graduation rates instead.

2. Have students work individually or in pairs to record data for some other schools in your state. Encourage students to include a wide range of schools in their search: suburban, urban and rural. You may wish to provide a state map to facilitate this process. (If a limited number of computers are available, this research can be done as a class.)

3. Once students have completed the table on the “Graduation by the Numbers” handout, have them compare the data among districts, and note relationships between graduation rate and race/ethnicity as well as income. Then have the class discuss their findings as a group.

Next, distribute or display a copy of “Step Into Long Beach” (Note the class activities will focus on pp. 10 and 15 of the report.) 

  1. Review the role of the Khmer Girls in Action (KGA) and explain that members of this group, including students, prepared a survey of Cambodian students in their community to find out more about students’ needs. Explain that this report summarizes their findings and makes recommendations for better serving Cambodian students in the community.
  2. Ask students to review the survey statements found on p. 10 of the report and suggest questions that might be applicable in their own community. You may wish to ask students to record their questions individually or in pairs, then share with the larger group.

Now, direct students’ attention to the list of demands found in the KGA Youth Wellness Platform on p. 15 of the KGA report. This list includes a culturally relevant education, an encouraging and positive college and 21st-century career prep environment, respectful and dignified treatment, comprehensive information about and access to services, and all families' ability to live sustainably.

  • Which of the issues described need attention in their community? What evidence can students provide to support their suggestions?
  • What resources already exist in their community to address these issues?
  • What resources are still needed?

(Note: KGA's demands address subjects such as cultural relevance and sex/sexuality. Remind students to phrase comments in a way that respects all students.)


Related TT Resources


Related External Resources

Check out other America by the Numbers episodes and their accompanying lessons.

Teaching Tolerance collage of images

Welcome to Learning for Justice—Formerly Teaching Tolerance!

Our work has evolved in the last 30 years, from reducing prejudice to tackling systemic injustice. So we’ve chosen a new name that better reflects that evolution: Learning for Justice.

Learn More