79-year-old teacher maintains Kennedy High gardens amid pandemic

Teacher, 79, maintains Kennedy High gardens amid pandemic
Teacher Salvatore Morabito (right) and classroom aide Sopheap Sap tend to the Kennedy High campus gardens on Monday, Nov. 17, 2020. (Photos by Mike Kinney)

By Mike Kinney

While the Kennedy High campus has lacked the typical bustling student activity during the COVID-19 pandemic, its evolving gardens remain vibrant.

A big reason for that is Salvatore Morabito, the 79-year-old teacher who has made a significant impact in the lives of his special needs students, and also in beautifying their Richmond campus.

Morabito, who’s taught special needs students at Kennedy for the past 10 years, and previously at De Anza High for 13 years, has guided his students in the construction and maintenance of school campus gardens as an educational tool.

While students haven’t been able to learn on campus during the pandemic, the gardens haven’t been ignored. Every Friday, Morabito heads to the campus to maintain them.

Sal Morabito

He waters, prunes and weeds the Cutting Boulevard flower garden, clears weeds near the back gates of the football fields and collects fruits from the Fruit Tree Orchard. He watered the Fruit Tree Orchard by hand for two months due to irrigation issues. He’s also kept wood chips at the school entrance clean of debris, and wiped clean the plexiglass covering the Kennedy High Wall of Fame plaques that accentuate the gardens.

“In good conscience I just could not have let everything go, and make my students restart from scratch,” Morabito said.

Morabito, affectionately referred to as the “Grandfather of Kennedy High,” said he launched the garden program with his students 10 years ago. It’s part of the six components to his curriculum, which include recreation, functional academics, vocational skills, domestic skills, community-based instruction and gardening. When students are learning on campus, they’re spending about an hour to an hour-and-a-half in the gardens.

“They also maybe constructing fences or tiles for the garden areas or spreading wood chips,” he said. “They will do weeding, spread the mulching and other basic gardening activities.”

The program has created “opportunities for my students to work cooperatively and to take on responsibilities,” he said. Watching plants grow, seeing their progress, builds confidence, self-esteem and pride, he said. The praise their efforts receive from other students, parents, teachers and community members is uplifting.

“Through a garden, students help to beautify the school grounds,” Morabito said. “For many of our students it is their only chance to contribute positively to their environment.”

On some Fridays, classroom aide Sopheap Sap, who was the WCCUSD para-professional teacher’s aide of the year in 2019, helps Morabito in the school gardens. In May, woodshop and construction teacher James Henderson joined Morabito and Sap in creating a Kennedy High Wall of Fame to honor notable staff members from past to present.

“Sopheap painted the wall of fame, laminated the pictures and the info about the staff, and helped Henderson with the measurements of the frame and support of the Wall of Fame,” Morabito said.

Such collective efforts over the years have worked to beautify the campus, but now they’re working to sustain an important learning tool for when students return to campus.

Like his colleagues, Morabito is teaching his special needs class online. Despite the distance, he said he still looks for ways to engage his students personally.

“They are the best students in the world, they are like my family,” he said. “Sometimes I will stop by their homes and bring them ice cream. But it’s the gardens we have here they really love working in.”

On average, Morabito instructs about 10 to 12 students with special needs, from freshmen to seniors. At times, they’re not the only students toiling away in the gardens.

“Sometimes the math teacher Ms. Ash Abbott will bring her entire class of 30 students to work with my students in the garden. It’s simply wonderful,” Morabito said. “Mr. Henderson and his class have helped my students to build benches and tables by the football field as an example.”  

When the Standard visited the campus Monday, both Morabito and Sap were busy shoveling wood chips into wheelbarrows to transfer to the Eagles Flower Garden. Sal noted that he liked his wood chip piles to be about 10 inches high for better growing conditions. A beautiful outdoor portrait of Michael Peritz and his wife Ruth grace the garden. Michael Peritz was a teacher at Kennedy High for 34 years, and for the past 16 years the Peritz’s have been advocating for the needs of the school’s students and families.

After finishing up in the Flower Garden, we proceeded to the Fruit Tree Orchard behind the football field. The orchard is about one-fourth of an acre, with over 50 trees bearing such fruits as figs, guava, grenade, persimmons, apples, apricots, Persian lime and ambrosia pomegranates.

The orchard is called Sal’s Community Orchard.

“My special needs students are learning to be responsible to the environment here at the fruit orchards,” Morabito said. “What they have truly achieved is a strong sense of community and to know they can be successful in any endeavor of their choosing.”