5Qs: Detroit Cristo Rey's President on the Importance of Putting Students to Work


Detroit public schools are often in the media for a variety of reasons — budget issues, low attendance, performance, etc. But one school in Detroit is making headlines for a different reason. For the past four years, 100 percent of Detroit Cristo Rey High School’s seniors were accepted into college. The southwest Detroit school pairs students with companies and provides them with an internship throughout their years in high school. DBusiness Daily News spoke with the school’s president, Mike Khoury, about the business side of running a private school and the importance of getting kids exposed to job opportunities.

1. DDN: What’s your background?

Prior to (becoming the president of) Detroit Cristo Rey, I was primarily in business. I spent the first half of my career in finance, and then I joke that I got tired of seeing the sales people come in after I did, leave before I did, and make more (money) than I did. So, I spent the second half of my career in sales for the automotive industry, which is how I ended up in Detroit. 

2. DDN: How does running a school compare to working in the automotive industry?

The role of the president at a private school really requires a lot of the business skills that I (learned at my previous jobs). My role is to make sure that we have the resources for (the principal) to do what she needs to do. I have to be very attentive to our finances because we operate with a thin budget. I have to go out and talk to people about the school and sell them on the idea of getting involved with the school. Detroit Cristo Rey is a little different — we primarily get our funding by companies hiring our students to work. And that contributes almost 60 percent of our budget. They’re going to these companies and doing a real job and we have them working in hospitals, automotive manufacturers, banks, law firms, (and at companies) such as General Motors, DTE Energy, Fiat Chrysler, and the Ideal Group. There’s a salt mine in Detroit and we (have students) working there too. This year, our students are going to earn — and the money comes to the school — $1.9 million.

3. DDN: Why do you think it’s beneficial to get high school students working?

Another part of our school that’s unique is that we have an income qualification to attend our school. So if you make above a certain income or your family does, you cannot send your child to our school. We joke that if you can afford to send your child to Detroit Cristo Rey, well, they can’t come. We are primarily serving low-income students and, in fact, the average income of our families is about $27,000 to $28,000 a year. Typically, and I’m generalizing, if you come from a family at that income level, you’re not really exposed to a lot of people with college educations and professional careers. So it’s hard for you to know what that means to have that opportunity and have those role models at least as it relates to education and careers. However, now, for our kids, one day a week, they go out and they’re working with HR managers, sales vice presidents, and engineers and then they begin to see the value of a college education and what the opportunities there are for them if they go to college.

The other thing that happens — and it’s impossible to overestimate — is the way our work partners respond to our students to embrace them, advocate for them, and then look out for them and try to create opportunities for them. They become a great resource to help our kids move up professionally and academically. It’s just a really beautiful thing for our kids and the companies.

5. DDN: What do you find is the most challenging and rewarding part of your job?

Getting our story out there. I think there’s some really good things happening at Detroit Cristo Rey — our kids are making really significant improvements academically. Our kids go to college above the national average, they stay in college above the national average, they’re doing these great things for these great companies and the fact is, most people have never heard of our school. This school only works when it’s part of the community, when companies say, “Yes, I’ll hire these kids.” It’s all related to making sure we have enough money to be financially viable. We don’t get money from the government, so we’ve chosen a different path.

In terms of what’s rewarding — everything. Certainly being with our students is incredibly energizing. They’re really wonderful kids. The other thing is the way the people in the community have responded  — it’s not uncommon that the job partner will say we get way more out of this than we put into it.

FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) presents “Gems of Detroit,” an event to benefit Detroit Cristo Rey High School on May 8 at Eastern Market’s renovated Shed 5. The event will include food and drinks from restaurants around Detroit, and all proceeds benefit Detroit Cristo Rey. To purchase a ticket, click here.