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Long Beach Asks: What’s a Healthy School?

A group of Cambodian-American university students met at a local Long Beach restaurant over the Christmas holiday to share their experiences, so that when they enter the professional world, they’ll have a Cambodian network.
LONG BEACH, CA - Long Beach, Calif., has been selected as one of 14 cities in California to receiving funding and other assistance from the California Endowment to build healthier communities, including schools.

The city stands to gain tens of millions of dollars in the coming years. But first they have to ask themselves, what does a healthy school look like?

A group of Cambodian-American university students met at a local Long Beach restaurant over the Christmas holiday to share their experiences, so that when they enter the professional world, they’ll have a Cambodian network.

They briefly chatted at tables, discussed their prospects at university, and took a few moments to congratulate themselves on their success. Asked what made it possible, and what might make for better schools in Long Beach, and they had different answers.

“A place where students can express themselves,” said Sok Sothea, who is now a student at the University of California Irvine. “As well as having encouragement from their teachers, their peers, as well as their family members.”

“Encouraging students to get involved, because a lot of students these days don’t do extracurricular activities, they just go to school and just put in a little bit of effort,” said Kol Thida, who is also attending UC Irvine. “What teachers should do is probably just motivate students to reach higher education.”

Long Beach Asks: What’s a Healthy School?
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These students were lucky. Through encouragement of parents, teachers, or their peers, they were able to graduate high school and further their educations. But Long Beach educators want to do better. And not just the Cambodian community. With millions of dollars available through the California Endowment, citizens of Long Beach must determine what makes a healthy community, and what makes healthy schools.

The endowment calls for the 14 communities it has selected for funding to come up with their own answers to some tough questions. Working groups have been established, and residents and experts are meeting together to come up with their own ideas. A Cambodian group met with key organizers, led by Juan Benitez, of the Center for Community Engagement, at California State University Long Beach, in November.

“We didn’t provide the parameters of school discipline, parent engagement and achievement gap at that point, but what we found was that when we asked the broader question, what is your vision for a dream school, that those three areas came up,” Benitez told VOA Khmer in a recent interview. “For instance, in having more loving and caring teachers, more information provided to the parents by schools, around how parents can be supportive and be involved, but also in the area of having more diverse types of classes, more diverse curriculum.”

Cambodian-American students are often lumped into a statistical category with other Asian groups, like those from Japan or South Korea. But in terms of their own achievements and opportunities, they are more likely to fall amid struggling groups like Hispanics or blacks.

Susana Sngiem, an organizer at the the United Cambodian Community center in Long Beach, said Cambodian parents are interested in their children’s educations, but they don’t always know what that means or what they can do to help.

“They’re coming from a survival mentality, and so that means meeting basic needs,” Sngiem told VOA Khmer. “With the parents, they’re thinking, as long as the children have food on the table, and that they’re alive, I’m a good parent. And thinking beyond that I think is going to take a lot more time and a lot more education, in terms of [understanding] that they’re being good parents, and they’re doing well, but let’s not just survive, let’s thrive, and let’s grow beyond where we are.”

The endowment money will come through various programs over the next decade. But for Phang Se, whose daughter is a freshman at a California university, parent involvement can help right away.

“In my experience, there are some difficulties,” he said at the graduate reunion in December. “But I think during this four years my daughter has had her mom, who’s been helping her along the way, because I was working everyday. Her mom helped her always. But I also checked the school website, check scores and grades. It’s not that very difficult. I tried to communicate and be involved with the school, so I could understand the result and see how she was doing.”

Meetings for how to create healthy communities, and build better schools, are ongoing. There are working groups for better neighborhoods, schools and air quality. The next meeting for the schools working group is on Jan. 14. More information can be found at