Former Avery Dennison salesman now oversees a Detroit high school

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Hannah Lutz, Automotive News Detroit Cristo Rey President Michael Khoury: "They made me the interim, and I refused to leave."

Detroit — After a salesman for a decorative film supplier to the auto industry wrote the final college tuition check for his youngest child in 2007, his worldview shifted.

Michael Khoury left his auto supplier job at Avery Dennison Corp. to work at a new high school in a low-income Detroit neighborhood. He was in his late 40s, a career peak for the average person, but he was ready for a change.

When his daughter, the recent college graduate, had looked for volunteer opportunities, she came across Cristo Rey High School in Pilsen, a predominantly Hispanic, low-income neighborhood on Chicago's lower west side. She asked her dad to look through the website and let her know what he thought.

"I said, 'Maria, if they opened a school like that in Detroit, I would go work there. You should go,'" Khoury, 58, said.

The Cristo Rey Network now is made up of 32 high schools nationwide that are partially funded by a work-study program. Each student works at least one full day per week in an entry-level position at a local business. At Detroit Cristo Rey, job partners include automakers, suppliers and other local businesses.

Right after Khoury's daughter started working at Chicago's Cristo Rey, Khoury's wife was on a retreat and saw a flyer announcing that Cristo Rey was opening in Detroit and looking for job partners.

"My background obviously is not education, but I reached out to them. It took about six months. I kept calling them and sending them letters. I joke that after six months, they said, 'We can hire him or get a restraining order, but this has got to stop,'" Khoury said

He started working on Detroit Cristo Rey's finances and work-study program in March 2008.

The school officially opened five months later. By January 2009, the first president left, and Khoury replaced him.

"They made me the interim, and I refused to leave," he said.

A hopeless proposal?

Khoury and his colleagues started asking everyone they knew in the business world to consider becoming a job partner. With the automotive companies, "We would kind of have a common language. I did have a pretty good understanding of how tough the automotive industry can be," he said.

Despite his business connections, persuading local companies to hire Cristo Rey students came at tumultuous time: the recession. Before Detroit Cristo Rey's first school year ended, both GM and Chrysler had declared bankruptcy. "The idea of calling people up and asking if they would hire our kids at that point in time was kind of an exercise in either futility or humor," Khoury said.

Still, he tried. And though some companies were receptive, Khoury said many would say, "I just laid off 20,000 people, and you want me to hire four teenagers from Detroit?"

The staff members persevered because they had to. They knew that if they didn't find job partners, the school would close.

"We found enough companies willing to do it that we hung on. Really [during] those first years, 'hanging on' is probably the best [description] of what we were doing financially," Khoury said.

Seventy students enrolled in the school's first year, 2008-09. All of them were placed in a job. Khoury and his colleagues were able win over businesses by using other Cristo Rey schools as examples to show that the model worked.

"If we hadn't been able to point to those other schools, I'm not sure how it would have been," he said. "Especially in those first years, we were really appealing to people's philanthropic side."

Turning point

In 2011, Cristo Rey reached a turning point: Chrysler signed on.

Some of its biggest suppliers already had worked with Cristo Rey, and Chrysler agreed to do a pilot program with two teams, which meant eight students. If it worked out, the automaker planned to add two more teams the following semester.

"That really gave us some momentum," Khoury said. Now, Fiat Chrysler has more than 20 students.

Ideal Group, a construction company that works with GM, planted the seed at the automaker, Khoury said. The president of Ideal Group brought Russ Brewster, director of asset services and user experience for global business services at GM, to Cristo Rey, and the conversation began. GM took one team in 2011.

In 2012, GM hired nine students. In 2013, it hired 16. Each year, it asked for more students, and now it has 50. GM's commitment is "unrivaled," Khoury said.

Detroit Cristo Rey is now ending its ninth school year, and all 304 of its students work at a local company.