By Darla Atlas
Updated June 16, 2014 12:00 PM


Port Barre, La.

THE SON OF A JANITOR and a housekeeper, neither of whom finished high school, Gabe Sonnier recalls that “my parents always stressed the importance of education.” But during his freshman year at college his folks split, and Sonnier had to drop out to work: in construction, at a sawmill, at a supermarket. Later he became a janitor like his dad, hired by the head of Port Barre Elementary, Wesley Jones. “It was my intention to stay five, maybe 10 years,” he says. But 33 years on, Sonnier is in the same kid-filled halls – only now he’s the principal.

How he got here is an inspirational story that today’s students hear from their parents, who recall when Mr. Sonnier was cleaning up after them. “He made us feel safe and comfortable,” says Laci Polotzola, an alumna and mom. In 1985 Jones told Sonnier, “I’d rather see you grading papers than picking them up.” By then a married father, Sonnier appreciated those words but held off going back to college until his two sons graduated. In 2000 he enrolled in night school. He would start work at 5 a.m., go to class, often return to work and then stay up late to do homework. After earning associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, he became a teacher. A master’s in education leadership followed in 2012, then, in November, promotion to principal. “I was thrilled and humbled,” says Sonnier. “I was here by myself over Christmas, and all I could think was ‘Thank you, God.’ ” He also credits Jones, who passed away before seeing his protégé’s rise. Sonnier now gives that nudge to others. Five Port Barre teachers are earning master’s degrees this year. One, Tonya Stelly, says when work and school are too much, “he’d say, ‘Stick with it. It’ll be worth it in the long run.’ ” Adds Sonnier: “There are other Gabes out there. They should know there’s hope.”