Up in Northeastern Louisiana, there’s a little place called Tensas Parish, consisting of a tight-knit community of three towns right next to the Mississippi. Not many people have heard of Tensas, but I recently spent a weekend there with the LSU LASAL Scholars, and it was definitely an eye-opening experience.
The trip was meant to give LASAL students a context for understanding rural poverty, a persistent yet frequently hidden problem in our state. Tensas Parish has one of the highest percentages in the country of children whose families have incomes below the federal poverty threshold — 48%. For the residents of Tensas Parish, there’s only one store, one public high school, and it’s a forty-five minute drive to get to the nearest hospital. Not to mention that the average annual income is $22,264.
While we were in Tensas, we worked on a beautification project alongside high school members of the Tensas Parish Community Service Club, planting flowers as we got to know one another better.
All of the students I met were extremely friendly and eager to share their stories. Most of them described Tensas as a beautiful, peaceful place to live, but they also admitted to being frequently bored. Richard, a Tensas High sophomore, said, “We don’t have a lot of recreation. If we had things to do in school, that’d keep a lot of kids out of trouble. And summer jobs would be a big help, because we wouldn’t have to depend on our parents.”
Afterward, we had the chance to listen to various community leaders, including Jacqueline D. Schauf, CEO and Executive Director of the Tensas Community Health Center, who is in charge of public health in the parish.
Schauf told us that Tensas Parish is a designated Primary Care Health Professional Shortage Area with a HRSA score of 16, meaning that it is facing one of the direst health care shortages in the country. Before a brand-new dental facility opened in the parish in October, Tensas residents had access to a dentist only 1.5 days a week for 25 years (resulting in a HRSA score of 18 for dental care).
“We’re trying to do what we can,” she said. “About 37 percent of our population is below the poverty line, which makes it hard to provide different types of services.”
We also heard from members of the Tensas Parish School Board, including its president, Mrs. Annice Miller, who talked to us about the numerous difficulties facing the schools in Tensas, including an insufficient number of certified teachers, a lack of industry in the area which has led to a sharp population decline over the past decade, unfunded mandates, and a high turnover rate among teachers.
“Our parish is so small and very poor, unfortunately, and we depend on the Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) to survive —it provides most of the income we have to operate our school system,” she said. “We had to consolidate some of the schools a couple years ago. We’re forever trying to save money, and we’re trying to find ways to cut again … we’d love to be able to provide more, more in the way of music programs and that sort of thing, but we’re so strapped for cash that it’s impossible.”
For students at Tensas High, extracurricular activities are limited to two clubs and two sports. Erin, a Tensas High School senior who hopes to eventually become a teacher in her hometown, believes that offering more activities for students will help them stay on the right track.
“Besides this service club and 4-H, we don't have any other clubs — they get cut because of funding. And then there’s basketball and football … if you’re not doing that, then you’re really not doing anything, she said. “My thing is academics, but not everyone likes academics, so maybe if we had other things for them to do they would stay more interested in school. Because if you’re not interested in school and it’s not fun, you’re not going to want to stay there.”
Not only are children who grow up in Tensas more likely to grow up poor than their peers in other parts of the state, but they are also more likely to drop out of school. Worse still, studies show that children who live in poverty and grow up in distressed neighborhoods end up with more limited opportunities to move out of poverty.
Listening to the residents of Tensas Parish and interacting with many of its bright, motivated students made me realize that something has to be done. If Tensas students are denied the opportunity to participate in enrichment programs, get summer jobs, and earn a high-quality education that will prepare them for college, they will be far less likely to stay on track or will lack the means to escape the vicious cycle of poverty.
“Places such as Tensas Parish are negatively affected by policies that encourage students to leave public schools that already lack the student population to be adequately funded,” said Jackson Voss, a LASAL junior. “The governor's education reform proposals will likely deprive more students of the educational opportunities they need … and do the Louisiana public education system a great disservice.”
My visit to Northeastern Louisiana’s Delta opened my eyes. The people of Tensas Parish are resilient, determined, and close-knit, but without outside help and without resources, their community will not be likely to survive for much longer. As resident Mrs. Dolores Gentry put it, “We’re on the road to trying to rebuild our schools and our town, and we need help from anybody we can get it from.”
Story by Elizabeth Clausen, LSU Honors College
For more information, contact the Honors College at 225-578-8831