SAN FRANCISCO — Sophomore Angelica Buncio knows her hard luck turned to good fortune when she joined 371 female students at ICA Cristo Rey Academy.

Established in 1883 to carry on the historic mission of Catholic education to enlighten and empower the vulnerable and voiceless, the San Francisco high school fulfills its ministry by joining with 152 corporate partners to integrate professional work experience with a four-year college prep curriculum and give economically disadvantaged girls a career-enhancing edge.

Girls such as Angelica, who chokes up at the memory of the travails she and her family endured after emigrating from the Philippines.

“My parents wanted a better life for me, but they couldn’t always give it to me and that’s why …,” she confided, tears interrupting her reminiscence. “It hasn’t always been rainbows and all happy stuff, but it’s a lot better now.”

Her prospects grew more promising with newfound aptitude and attitude.

The former self-described “very shy, anti-social introvert” now exudes confidence, courage and conviction born in part of a well-rounded, in-the-field experience at Mills-Peninsula Health Services in Burlingame, California, where her supervisor staggered her shifts to include seniors, dementia patients, physical therapists, retailers and facility managers.

“ICA has opened up a lot of doors for me and given me a lot of opportunities that people way older than me don’t have,” Angelica told Catholic San Francisco, newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

“Now, because of my job where I met so many people in so many areas of the hospital when I was just 14, I can talk on the phone with adults without getting scared, I’m not afraid to ask for help, I’ve learned how to branch out and try new things, like new sports and different clubs and getting to know different kinds of people,” she explained.

The story repeats with fellow sophomore Micaiah Acosta and juniors Jessica Ferrer and Julienne Cancio, all U.S.-born children of struggling Filipino immigrants whose future outlooks brightened with acceptance at ICA Cristo Rey.

“I felt it was a good opportunity for me to have a better life than what my family had to go through,” said Micaiah, who worked at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, California.

“ICA gets us a step ahead because you don’t see a lot of teenagers in the workforce, especially at the corporate level, so it looks good on college resumes, and it’s helped me better my people skills.”

As an additional bonus, tension eased between her parents, who had divorced when she was 3, because — with an annual tuition of $2,900 and families paying an average $1,500 — her father could finally afford the kind of education her mother had longed to give her.

Jessica, whose parents worked at McDonald’s to make ends meet upon arriving in America some 20 years ago, felt equal relief for similar reasons.

“My going to ICA to give me opportunities they didn’t have lifted a lot of pressure,” she said.

She’s had a job at Jones Day, a prestigious law firm, the sixth largest in the United States and 13th highest grossing in the world. The job “has definitely taught me so many things you couldn’t learn anywhere else, and the teachers have given me so much because they care and focus on every student.”

Her classmate Julienne’s tale follows a similar script.

Arriving before her dad, her mom took a minimum-wage job at Subway even though she had earned a dental degree in her homeland.

“Going to ICA definitely helped my family because the tuition here was cheaper than my K-8 school, and it still gave me a really good job, college prep, academics and personal payoff,” said Jessica, who worked for two years at Brown and Toland Physicians.

“If I was going to any school other than ICA, I would probably be a nobody because before I came to ICA, I was really shy and not comfortable talking in public.”

Such transformations add evidence the unique model works in enabling girls to “have experiences they never dreamed possible,” said Dominican Sister Diane Aruda, ICA’s president.

“Parents share how astounded they are at who their daughters have become as mature, young women with goals.”

They have statistical backing: 100% of students matriculate, 82% being the first in their families to do so and 65% graduating within six years while often working part time; 95% meet or exceed job expectations, and fewer than 10% drop out before getting their diploma.

The impressive numbers may relate to ICA’s unique acceptance criteria that assess the “whole” applicant.

“We take it all into consideration,” admissions director Angelica Granera said, “GPA, test scores, family income, school recommendations and family interviews.”

The process aims for a good fit into the rigorous program that demands four years of English, math, science and religion, three years of social studies and language, two years of physical education and one year of art, with honors and Advanced Placement options, in addition to four years of corporate work study, a graded academic course.

Punctuality, performance, professionalism and proper attire — white polo shirt, cardigan sweater or vest, khaki or black uniform pants, black shoes — can contribute to high marks, said Bill Olinger, program director.

“We have a 90% sponsor retention rate, indicating they believe in what we are doing,” he said.

To get a leg up, new students participate in a two-week summer training for clerical jobs they will be performing five days a month to earn nearly half the cost of their schooling.

A sponsoring company pays ICA $34,000 a year for a team of four girls — one from each grade — that rotates work days to comprise one full-time employee.

That amounts to $8,500 per student, 43% of the $20,000 it takes to educate her. Tuition adds another $1,500 to $2,900, with the remainder picked up by donors, foundations and fundraisers.

The 136-year-old institution joined the Cristo Rey Network a decade ago as its only all-girl school member.

Initiated in 1998 as a collaborative effort between the Christian Brothers and the Jesuits, the network is comprised of 37 independently run Catholic schools in 24 states, 3,450 corporate partners, 13,000 students and 18,035 graduates, making it the largest such entity in the country serving exclusively the underserved, said ICA principal George Fornero.

“At ICA Cristo Rey, we often think of Mother Pia Backes, our founder, who was charged with having to build a school to serve the ‘young, poor and vulnerable,’” said ICA alum Melissa Ruiz, who is director of guidance. “That school, our ICA, was always living that mission and with Cristo Rey we are able to enhance our resources in that path.”

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Wasowicz writes for Catholic San Francisco, newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

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