California man goes from school custodian to district superintendent

By Caitlin O'Kane

/ CBS News

Dr. Reyes Gauna is the superintendent of Byron Union School District in Northern California. He may have a big title and a ton of responsibilities, but Gauna says he never forgets his humble beginnings.

Gauna started out as a school custodian in a nearby district. He held that job for four years while he was in college, then worked is way up to school resource officer. He was then inspired to become a teacher, and next, an administrator.

The superintendent says knowing that people believed in him helped him excel — and he never forgot about all the hard work he did as a custodian.

Superintendent Reyes Gauna spends most of his mornings by visiting the schools in the Byron Union School District – where he's received like a rock star. CBS News

"I come from humble beginnings. First generation, my parents migrated here [from Mexico] and always told us we're here to become contributors," Gauna told CBS News. He said he was always taught to make the world a better place. So that's what he focused on, even as a custodian.

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But he also dreamed of something bigger. "When I was a janitor, I remember visiting classrooms and I would pretend I was teaching," he said with a laugh.

He wasn't always well received by school staff. "When I was a custodian I remember being in schools and nobody cared about me," he said.

"So, when I became a schoolteacher, and even to this day, I have a true appreciation for everyone. Whether they're the cook in the cafeteria, the custodian, a teacher's aide, a teacher," he continued. "Having served in so many different positions, it really gave me an opportunity to understand all the different roles that it really takes to run a school."

"Sometimes we neglect the most simple people, because we take them for granted. And I don't take anybody for granted," Gauna said while walking around Discovery Bay Elementary School with CBS News last week.

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"I have a true appreciation for everyone," Gauna said. "Having served in so many different positions, it really gave me an opportunity to understand all the different roles that it really takes to run a school." CBS News

During the walk around campus, several kids came up to hug Dr. Gauna and give him a high-five. The cheery superintendent greeted each person: "Good morning, beautiful people! Happy Friday!"

Gauna says he always tries to be positive — and it helps make the whole school district a positive place. He also tries to visit the schools a few days a week. When he shows up, he's treated like a rock star.

While Guana, a father of three, was able to go to college, then get his master's and eventually a doctorate, he knows it's not always easy for others to reach their academic goals. "Really, the moral of the story is that I had the cards stacked against me," he said, mentioning the high dropout rate for Hispanic high school students when he was a teen.

"I really should not be where I'm at today, had I not had the right people in my life to inspire me. And have people see in me what probably I didn't always see," Gauna said.

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Kids at Discovery Bay Elementary School ran up to Dr. Gauna when they saw him on the schoolyard. He greeted every group with the same happy greeting: "Good morning, beautiful people!" CBS News

He said each step of his career, there was someone who inspired him to move on to the next level — and their support meant the world. He hopes to be a source of inspiration to the kids in his school district. Yet he admits that sometimes he still can't believe how far he's come.

"If I were to think back when I was a little boy that I would be here today as a superintendent, I mean, sometimes I pinch myself on the way to work in the morning," he said. "I couldn't have written a better script. I believe that if my story helps inspire others, then yes, I want make sure I share my story."

First published on September 9, 2019 / 4:05 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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