Three years ago, administrators at Immaculate Conception Academy — an all-girls Catholic high school — were having a difficult time achieving their mission: making college preparatory education affordable to girls from low-income families.

With the economic recession and San Francisco’s already high cost of living, private education was a luxury many families couldn’t afford.

Even when the Academy was offering tuition at just under $10,000 a year, the lowest of any private high school in the area — the average cost is $16,000 a year — many parents were coming up short. Some would save their nickels and dimes to pay their daughter’s tuition.

“It just breaks your heart to have a parent pulling change from their pocket,” said Kristin Johnson, the Academy’s marketing assistant.

After much thought, the 128-year-old school decided to take an alternative approach, one that requires students to help them fulfill their mission. It joined the Cristo Rey Network of schools, a movement that began 15 years ago with the founding of a Jesuit high school in Chicago that sent students to work to offset the cost of tuition.

Immaculate Conception Academy is now one of 24 private high schools across the nation — and the only one in San Francisco — to place each and every one of its students in entry-level clerical jobs so they can generate money for the school and ultimately lower the cost of their tuition.

Since it implemented what the Cristo Rey Network calls the Corporate Work Study Program, the Academy has succeeded in slashing its tuition cost by half — $4,000 a year for each student (it still provides financial aid to those in extreme need, which is about 67 percent of students).

“Some parents say, ‘Are we going to get a check?’ No, that’s not how it works,” said Johnson.

Under the Corporate Work Study Program, the school recruits businesses to become sponsors. Each sponsor pays the school a set fee of $29,000 a year for a full entry-level job, which consists of a team of four students from each grade level. Juniors work every Tuesday, seniors on Wednesdays, sophomores on Thursdays and freshmen on Fridays; each grade alternates one Monday a month. The money collected from sponsors goes toward offsetting tuition costs for the entire student body.

“We’re like an employment agency,” said Johnson.

The Academy has signed on more than 60 sponsors throughout San Francisco, from law firms, tax agencies and banks (such as Bank of the West), to nonprofits like the SF Bicycle Coalition and hospitals (such as St. Mary’s Medical Center).

In return, students gain real work experience fielding phone calls, entering data, filing, sending faxes, interacting with adults and, sometimes, learning more than they bargained for.

“I learned what I don’t want to do when I grow up,” said Briana Cortez, a 16-year-old sophomore at Immaculate Conception Academy who already has three jobs under her belt.

Cortez currently works for KPMG, a tax firm downtown. Last semester she worked for the American Red Cross, where she spent much of her time on the computer and taking donations. As a freshman, she worked for Supervisor David Campos’ office, fielding phone calls from residents with complaints. She remembers the most challenging time was when the firefighters went on strike.

“They had protesters calling every supervisor’s office. I had 27 messages to pick up and it was just a lot,” said Cortez, who was 14 years old at the time and completely overwhelmed by the responsibility.

“It was a great pressure on me to act really mature for my age,” she said.

She learned how to do that, and although she realized along the way that a “desk job” is not for her, Cortez said these experiences have made her more confident. She appreciates the interpersonal skills she has picked up, as well as the fact that she can add these jobs to her resume.

“I know how to act, how to present myself, and not to be immature,” said Cortez, who wants to be veterinarian.

As part of the work-study program, the girls also receive job training. Before the school year starts they go through Camp Rey, a two-week seminar where they are trained in how to use Microsoft Word and Excel. They are taught proper etiquette: how to dress, when to take a break, how to speak to customers, how to address their boss. When it’s their day to work, students report to school, pick up their time card and are chaperoned to their job.

Currently, Immaculate Conception Academy is the only all-girl school to be part of the Cristo Rey Network. As they continue to recruit more businesses to sustain their four-year conversion costs, they’re also looking to reach more students. They currently have 235 girls enrolled — most live in the Mission/Potrero/Bernal Heights area, while some come from as far as Daly City and the East Bay — but they have the capacity to enroll up to 360 students and provide them with quality education and on-the-ground work experience.

Johnson said the program has worked smoothly and that businesses, overall, are very happy with their students’ job performance. At the end of each work day, employers rate the girls’ job performance on a scale from one to five, with five being “very outstanding,” and 97 percent of the girls receive positive reviews. Johnson said they also expect as much from their sponsors.

“It’s not a charity thing,” Johnson said. “We look for jobs that will prepare them for life outside of high school.”