Tee Time

Lee High School dropped football, deciding golf was a better sport for its kids, no matter how poor or new to this country they might be

Justin Pineset has been class president at Lee High School two years in a row. The senior shadowed the mayor twice and has monthly meetings with the superintendent. He has worked at the Museum of Natural Science for the past four years. Pineset wears a white silk shirt and tie to school on an average Wednesday, and gives PowerPoint presentations at student assemblies.

He hopes to earn a scholarship to Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he wants to study architecture, law and education. Pineset wants to coach high school football and serve as a school principal. He also plans to be elected mayor, then governor, then president of the United States.

Right now he's trying to get elected homecoming king. But what he really wants is a home.

Justin Pineset gets ready for a long drive.
Daniel Kramer
Justin Pineset gets ready for a long drive.
Justin Records is the team's most enthusiastic member.
Daniel Kramer
Justin Records is the team's most enthusiastic member.

Pineset and his mother were evicted a year and a half ago. Since then the 18-year-old has been living with friends, crashing for a month or two at a time. "I try not to stay too long," he says. He planned to drop out of school this fall and work full-time at the museum. But teachers and school counselors convinced him to come back. The principal gave him a job working as a clerk in the main office during off periods and after school.

For Lee High School, Pineset is not that unusual. Because Lee is an unusual school. It has one of the most diverse student bodies in the district -- composed mostly of lower-income just-arrived immigrants. Lee's principal, Steve Amstutz, has had to do things differently from his colleagues.

Like dropping football.

Lee is the only comprehensive high school in Houston that doesn't have a football team. But it does have a golf team. And at Lee, a homeless boy like Justin Pineset can walk right up to the tee and get off a 250-yard drive.Two years ago, Westside High School opened and drained 1,000 students from Lee. After that exodus, there weren't enough guys to field a football team, says Principal Amstutz.

Located in the Gulfton area, the school has students from 72 countries who speak 40 different languages. About 10 percent of the school's 2,200 students have been in the country less than a year. The vast majority of the school is Hispanic. "But that covers from Nuevo Laredo to Tierra del Fuego," Amstutz says. "We're from the top of Mexico to the south of Argentina. And I've got kids from everywhere in between."

In those countries, they don't play football, Amstutz says. At least not American football -- they play soccer. Lee's homecoming is celebrated with a mariachi band at boys' and girls' soccer games. "A high school in Texas cuts football? That's shocking. That's almost sacrilegious. But we got no complaints," Amstutz says. "I got not one phone call. None. Zero. Zip."

Robert E. Lee High School opened in 1962. Lamar High School was crowded; Lee served Lamar's surplus students -- who were predominately affluent white kids. "It was a sea of white faces," Amstutz says. "They all looked like me."

The school was a pet project of the United Daughters of the Confederacy's Robert E. Lee chapter number 186. The chapter donated portraits of the general, stocked the library with Civil War books, and presented the school with a rebel flag. The school's symbol was the general's family coat of arms. "It has a squirrel on the top holding a nut," Amstutz says.

Three years ago, the school dropped the Confederate general's first and middle initial and changed the logo to a four-point-star-bodied person. "People think we stole it from Cingular," Amstutz says. The portraits of the general have been taken down.

In the 1970s, members of Lee's girls' golf team practiced every day, according to an old copy of the school newspaper, The Traveler. With the shift in the student body, interest in golf died out and the team disappeared. "Most of our students have never played golf before," the principal says. Both the boys' and girls' golf teams were resurrected around the time football was cut. Today, the golf teams consist of six guys and four girls. Only one player is white.

There are three Justins on the boys' golf team. On the driving range, Justin Records swings and misses the ball. He swings again, hits the ball, but it doesn't make it to the netted backdrop.

"That was a sissy shot," his mom screams at him. Elaine Salazar is sitting outside the chain-link fence, a few feet behind her son. She's been thrown out of Little League games for yelling at the umpire.

She says he's bunting the ball; he needs to hit harder. He can do better, she says. He has a good swing, but he's not concentrating. She yells directions at him. He holds up the club and tells her to take a shot. "I can't," she says, lifting the hem of her red dress. "I'm wearing heels." And besides, she doesn't play golf.

Her 15-year-old son wants to be an archeologist and study Mayan ruins. Records reads Clive Cussler novels. He took flying lessons, but since he was too young to get his pilot's license, he quit.

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