‘Mr. Gabe’ the custodian works his way to principal

When Joseph “Gabe” Sonnier was selected in November as principal of Port Barre Elementary, there was no need to acquaint himself with details of the campus.

After all, Sonnier had already spent 32 years there, including more than 20 as the school’s head custodian.

When Sonnier dropped out of Southern University after his 1979 freshman year, becoming an educational leader — or even returning to college any time soon — wasn’t even a consideration.

At the time, Sonnier’s mother was a housekeeper, trying to raise four other children while assisting Sonnier with his college expenses.

“It was a situation that was virtually impossible for her. I went to work to help out my mom,” Sonnier said recently in his office, while some of the school’s students concluded late-evening tutoring sessions.

After a string of jobs that included working at a supermarket, in construction and at a sawmill, then attending T.H. Harris Vocational School in Opelousas for electrical circuitry, Sonnier also found himself married with children.

Sonnier learned that a former teacher, now principal at the school, was looking for a janitor. Sonnier applied and got the job in 1981.

As a high school student, Sonnier had helped his father clean office buildings in Lafayette and at the Evangeline Downs racetrack in Carencro, so it was an occupation he knew well.

“When I first started here (at Port Barre Elementary), I wanted to be a custodian all my life,” Sonnier said.

As Sonnier began entering classes taught at the school, he noticed specifically what was happening between teacher and student.

“When I would walk into class, seeing what was happening there and what they were doing, I began to say, ‘I can do this, and I would like to be that teacher, right here.’ ”

“Being a custodian, walking into the different classrooms, you learn what you want to do if you were there and what you don’t want to do.”

Sonnier’s feelings about becoming a teacher were reinforced when Principal Albert August approached Sonnier with an observation.

“I was a student of his when Mr. August taught Louisiana history and he knew I had always been a good student. One day Mr. August came to me here at school and said, ‘Gabe, you know you should be grading papers rather than picking them up,’ ” Sonnier said.

August provided some assistance, helping arrange Sonnier’s custodial workload so he could attend LSU at Eunice.

“I would get to school at 5 a.m. and then leave at 7 a.m. to get to LSU-Eunice. After classes, I would come back at 8:30 p.m. and work the rest of my hours, usually until around midnight. Then I would go home and do homework and get two or three hours of sleep,” Sonnier said.

By this time, Sonnier and his wife Felicia had two sons, Sean and Maurice, who both played college football.

Fall weekends were spent traveling to games at Ranger College in Texas and the University of Louisiana at Monroe.

“Even on the weekends, I wasn’t getting any rest. During this time, the most hours of sleep I was getting the whole week was somewhere around 10 to 12,” Sonnier said.

When it came time to do his student teaching, Sonnier’s custodial schedule presented a problem. He couldn’t do both at the same time.

“I went to (assistant superintendent) Mr. Jim Olivier, and he realized I had enough accumulated days saved up to where I could spend the day doing student teaching (at Sunset Elementary),” Sonnier said. “After teaching, I would come back and work at night (as the Port Barre Elementary custodian).”

It was while he taught at Sunset Elementary that Sonnier knew he made the right choice.

“Two of the classes in the grade level I taught had many problems, and when I left they were getting the highest marks. I knew I could make a difference,” he said.

Sonnier put away his custodial duties and in 2008 began teaching fourth grade at Port Barre Elementary.

Current Port Barre head custodian Raymond Narcisse remembers something was different immediately about the way Sonnier treated his classroom.

“Mr. Sonnier always cleaned his own classroom. I guess (being a custodian) was still in his blood,” Narcisse said.

Sonnier said even as a custodian, he received administrative training.

“I was allowed to purchase all the school supplies, including the instructional supplies. I knew all the ins and outs of running a school and how to handle it,” Sonnier said.

Sonnier said he later received his master’s degree in educational leadership by taking online courses through Arkansas State.

After the retirement of another principal, Sonnier interviewed for the job and was hired.

Several St. Landry Parish School Board members commented on Sonnier’s educational journey after unanimously appointing him as principal.

“This is truly an inspiring story. It’s one of the best I’ve heard and I‘ve been sitting here for a long time,” board member Charles Ross said.

Board member Anthony Standberry said Sonnier had his priorities focused before tackling the principal’s job.

“You took time to raise your family and then you educated yourself. You are an example that you can work your way up and proof that if you work hard, you can go forward,” Standberry told Sonnier.

Board member Donnie Perron, whose election district includes Port Barre, said Sonnier will do well as a principal.

“You have been a success at everything that you’ve done. You educated your sons before finishing your own education,” Perron said to Sonnier.

Sonnier said there are certainly educational challenges ahead for the school.

The 566 students at Port Barre Elementary, a pre-kindergarten to fourth-grade school, have some obstacles, since most children come from high-poverty environments. About 90 of the students qualify for free lunch, Sonnier said.

The classrooms are crowded, with most of them up to 30 students per teacher, Sonnier said.

Still Sonnier is optimistic and willing to work the kind of long hours he endured while holding the dual roles of custodian and college student.

“I’m here at 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. with the door open. Many of the students who were here while I was the custodian now have children here. You build your community with kids, and the ones who watched me work as a custodian are telling me now that I deserve (to be principal). The kids who were here when I was Mr. Gabe the custodian are now the community and I always had a good relationship with those kids,” Sonnier said.