TUALATIN, Ore. — A new program being piloted at Tualatin High School is seeing success.

It’s called "LIFTT," which stands for "Leadership Integrity for Today and Tomorrow." The program, which combines activities in and out of school, is aimed at helping the most at-risk kids become successful at school.

For many of the kids in the program, it’s been a school year filled with transformation.

"Freshman year, sophomore year, junior year, I was at a point where I didn't care about school," said Vicente Lueza, a brand-new Tualatin High School graduate.

When Lueza was a sophomore, he said he had his dropout papers ready to turn in. But after developing meaningful relationships through the program, he graduated early this school year.

For Lueza, the LIFTT program has been lifechanging. He credits the adults involved with the program for saving his life when he was having suicidal thoughts.

"I was gonna give up, pop pills, or whatever I had to do. I was calling it. I didn’t want to be here anymore," Lueza said. "Thanks to the LIFTT team, I’m still here."

Lueza’s friend, Austin Pastrana, is also a part of the program. Pastrana plans to graduate this summer.

"This year has been my best so far," Pastrana said.

Throughout his early high school years, Pastrana said he wouldn’t go to class, and hung out with wrong crowd. Pastrana said he'd been arrested multiple times and was already familiar with the Washington Juvenile Department before starting the program.

"I never thought I was gonna get out of the system," Pastrana said.

How LIFTT works

During the school day, students in the program have a dedicated class period where they can talk about the things they’re going through, build positive connections with adults, and learn about ways to be more successful in life and school. The class touches on character development and group accountability as well.

Out of the classroom, many students spend time at Wilsonville Crossfit. The coaches there volunteered to hang out, get to know, and work out with the teens. In short, the program is about building authentic connection. Adults really try to get involved in the students' lives and get to know them.

The idea of LIFTT first started when school officials at Tualatin High started wondering why a number of students weren't showing up to class. They found that half of the kids playing hooky were Latino. But Latino students only made up 27% of the student population.

After extensive interviews they found the Latino students skipping school didn't feel connected to it and didn't feel like they belonged.

"It’s like anything else. They crave connections with people. They crave connections with each other. They wanted to see themselves represented in the curriculum. They wanted to feel like they had a place here," Michael Dellerba, principal at Tualatin High School, said.

So the school started working with the Washington County Juvenile Department and came up with a plan.

"The concept was why wait until they commit a crime," said Jon Biles, a Washington County juvenile counselor who is directly involved with the program.

He said many of the students who are skipping class typically have a number of issues they’re trying to deal with. Those issues can include problems at school, family, substance abuse, their attitudes, beliefs, and values, as well as mental health.

"As we started to get to know these students, there was a lot of trauma. There was a lot of environmental stressors. We learned that because of the environmental stressors, that was one of the biggest barriers of students coming to school," Biles said.

For students like Lueza and Pastrana, life wasn’t easy.

Pastrana said he wanted more support, but his mom was always working to support the family.

"My dad got deported when I was in sixth grade so I was basically on my own," he said.

He said he turned to the streets and did drugs. He doesn’t like to talk about it much, but said he almost died from his drug use.

Biles heard much of the same story from other teens. He said many of the students spoke about a lack of hope. They didn’t have a vision of themselves in the future.

"So we gave them a road map of things they can accomplish and we opened that door and we didn’t give up. We kept pushing them and pushing them to succeed," Biles said.

To his surprise, as the teens in the program got more involved and began feeling a sense of connection, they started showing up more.

"The attendance of these kids at school was about on average 25-30%. To my surprise, the summer program we average 95% attendance," Biles said.

While the 2018-2019 school year was the first full year of the program, prior to that, officials tested out a summer program that achieved good results. That gave program administrators encouragement about this school year’s program.

Fifty students were a part of the program this year. Ten were seniors. Nine of them graduated. In the beginning of the year, all of them did not believe they would graduate.

Dellerba said school officials have seen huge jumps in the percentage of attendance with a lot of the students in LIFTT, but not every student because each teen is unique.

The future of the LIFTT program

With their first full year behind them, school and juvenile department officials are looking ahead to hoping to improve the program at Tualatin High School next year. The long-term goal is to expand the program district-wide.

Biles said the most rewarding thing for him, is seeing the kids make big steps forward.

"That has been the biggest success and something I feel like I can go home and feel good about," Biles said. "The students trust us. We have developed a culture that has developed into a sense of family."

Principal Dellerba hopes more community partners step forward to help in the coming years. He and Biles said the involvement of Wilsonville Crossfit has been invaluable.

"The gym has developed a culture, the coaches have become mentors to a lot of these students. They have sponsored our families of need during Thanksgiving and Christmas. They have donated shoes, clothes," Biles said.

"The coaches, they don’t get paid to serve these students that we take to Wilsonville Crossfit and I can’t speak of how grateful I am of that partnership," he said.

Life after high school

Both Lueza and Pastrana said the program has been amazing. They’ve felt a sense of support and community that they didn’t have before. Now they’re excited to embark on a new chapter in life and get their post-high school lives started.

Lueza wants to pursue a music career. Pastrana is focused on getting off probation and starting a new adventure in Florida. Both say that without the program, they would never have graduated.

"They really impacted all of us because like they make you feel like they’re family. You can talk to them about whatever," Pastrana said.

"I realized my parents brought me to this country to not give up. They brought me to this country so I can live the American dream," Lueza said.