On a cold afternoon at a park in Signal Hill, near Long Beach, a group of young men bundled up in hoodies and baseball caps plays volleyball.
For a lot of them, the game is a welcome release. Many are struggling. Some are unemployed. Some never finished high school.
Like 20-year-old Tim Ngoy, who dropped out when he was a senior.
“I was involved in, like, I dunno, distractions I guess," Ngoy said. "I kicked it with the wrong people, the wrong crowd. I’d been ditching."
He said he tried home schooling his senior year, "but that didn't work out too well."
Like many of the young men there, Ngoy is the child of Cambodian refugees, raised in Long Beach, home to the nation's largest Cambodian population. His parents came to the U.S. when they were children. Their families fled the Khmer Rouge regime, which terrorized the country in the 1970s.
More than a million people were killed over the course of a few years, including the well-educated. Most of those made it to the U.S. arrived broke, struggling to survive and provide for their families with relatively little education.
Along with that, they've carried deep sense of trauma that's trickled down through generations.
"Me and my parents don’t really talk," Ngoy said. "So I didn’t have that person to tell me that you have to do this, you have to do that.”
A by-product of the dire circumstances endured by Cambodian refugees is a long-standing educational achievement gap. Cambodians, along with Laotians and Hmong, fare the worst among Asian Americans in terms of high school graduation rates, let alone college.
“The first generation, a lot of them had problems raising their children," said Keo Uy, who helped organize the volleyball game as a youth coordinator for United Cambodian Community, a refugee assistance group. "So a lot of times, there's a disconnect. A lot of them had parents, but grew up having their friends raise them, the system raise them, neighborhoods raise them. Some turned out well, and some...didn’t.”
But stories like Tim's aren't as common anymore. Census Bureau numbers provide a glimpse of what’s been happening as the second generation moves through school.
The overall dropout rate for Cambodian Americans is still high – fewer than 65 percent finish high school. But when you separate out students who were born in the U.S., about 87 percent are graduating. That’s better than the state average.
|Cambodian-American students' graduation rates in California|
|Native Born||Foreign Born||Overall|
|Graduated High School||85%||59%||62%|
|Graduated 2-Year College||7%||7%||7%|
|Graduated 4-Year College||27%||13%||15%|
Data source: Census data from 2008-2012 American Community Survey.
|Foreign-born Cambodian-American students' graduation rates according to age they arrived in U.S.|
|Level of education||Migrated as adult (over 18)||13-18 years old||6 - 12 years old||0-5 years old|
|Graduated High School||47%||69%||85%||90%|
|Graduated 2-Year College||4%||9%||11%||9%|
|Graduated 4-Year College||9%||13%||20%||22%|
Data source: National Census data from 2008-2012 American Community Survey.
Recent graduation rates at Long Beach Unified School District reflect this trend, said Christopher Lund, research director for the district. He says part of the credit goes to peer support - local groups that support young Cambodian Americans.
“Supports within the community are very strong," Lund said. "I think an advantage that the Cambodian students have within Long Beach is there is a large representation of students and thereby, the networks of support to really encourage and help them along the way.”
But there’s another hurdle for Cambodian kids: College.
Lund says many of his graduates at least start off at two-year schools, with a smaller number going to four-year universities. But it's a challenge, says UC Riverside professor Karthick Ramakrishnan, who has crunched census numbers on Asian American graduation rates.
"That's where the big gap is occurring," Ramakrishnan said. "There is a big gap between those who are completing high school…and not going to college in the first place."
Only 14 percent of Cambodian Americans complete a four-year degree, according to American Community Survey data. Even among the U.S.-born, only 1 in 4 finish college. That’s half the college graduation rate of Asian Americans in general.
Ramakrishnan said this gap is invisible to many because state education data lumps Cambodians into the general "Asian" category, which can be misleading.
"In terms of data, disaggregated data on the Asian American population, in particular with smaller Asian groups like Cambodians, it is very challenging to find that," he said.
For now, census data is the best measure, he said. But even that doesn't provide detailed information: for example, on where high school graduates obtain their education, or what universities they are qualified to attend, Ramakrishnan said.
A California Assembly bill known as AB 176 proposes mandating state educational systems, including the University of California, to collect disaggregated demographic data on different Asian and Pacific Islander subgroups.
Local Cambodian groups, meanwhile, have put together their own college efforts. Last fall, Keo Uy’s group organized a field trip to Long Beach State for local Cambodian high schoolers. One kid who went was Philip, a senior at Lakewood High.
"I got to see the bigger picture," he said. "I got to see the campus… their labs. It was a really nice experience for me. It was life-changing, kind of."
The California State University system has what it calls student ambassadors, Asian and Pacific Islander students who go into under-served communities to talk to teens and parents about college.
One of them is Ryan Ly, a senior at Long Beach State who grew up in Long Beach and attended a local high school. While none of his friends dropped out, he said many didn’t go to college.
“They ended up working several jobs here in Long Beach, at supermarkets and that kind of stuff," said Ly," who recently joined a Cal State delegation in Sacramento to lobby for better educational data on Cambodian Americans. "To me, that’s a little discouraging.”
Ly said money is a big obstacle for Cambodian parents, who don’t realize their kids can seek financial aid. Last year, he gave a presentation at his alma mater, Millikan High.
“I went back and explained how I’d gotten support from counselors and teachers and other students," he said. "There is support out there, and you just need to go get help.”
For those who don’t get that far, second-generation peers like Keo Uy try to provide safety nets. Uy, who is 31, works with dropouts to help them find jobs and, when they're ready to go back to school. It's a job that hits close to home: Uy finished college, but his younger brother never made it through high school
“Sometimes, these guys don’t want to listen to you, especially when you are 21 years old, you are king of the world, and you can make your own decisions," Uy said. "But sometimes you just watch them, and see how they do, and when they fall, you’re there to pick them back up.”
Tim Ngoy is ready. He worked a nasty job after he dropped out of school, getting paid under the table doing pest control. With Uy’s help, he started looking for other jobs.
A couple of months ago, he started working at a McDonald’s. It doesn’t sound like much on its face. But he’s earned the equivalent of a GED by now, and he wants to earn money so he can learn a trade.
"It's a start, you know?" Ngoy said.
Uy's hope is that if more of these young people can make it, their children will have better educational - and economic - odds.
"Our third generation right now, they are barely in elementary school," Uy said, "and it's up to us to be role models."
* This story has been updated.