Howrani named HHM Game Changer

Detroit Tigers

Naomi Howrani was three years into a good job when she looked around and thought she might want to do something different.

After graduating from the University of Michigan, Howrani moved to Washington, D.C., to work in consulting. The sort of job that sets you up well. Not one many people leave to go work in a different industry.

Howrani, though, was ready to take a leap.

“It was OK,” Howrani said, “but it wasn’t incredibly fulfilling.”

So, she pivoted — making a career choice that was both best for her and would allow her to do work benefiting others. She spent a year teaching abroad in Thailand, then scrambled to take the GRE, getting into a one-year masters program at Michigan for a teaching degree. After three years of teaching in elementary school classrooms at a charter program called University Prep, Howrani moved into a role as the development director for Detroit Cristo Rey High School. Eight years later, she has stayed put, and the Detroit Red Wings, Detroit Tigers and Comerica Bank have named her the third Game Changers honoree of Hispanic Heritage Month.

The Cristo Rey Network started in Chicago, when the Jesuit community opened a school with a goal of helping low-income students get into and prepare for college. What made it unique was its approach — partnering with a corporate work-study program to both subsidize the school and give students white-collar work experience.

The model worked. Google Cristo Rey and you’ll find donors as high-profile as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as 34 more schools that opened in the network after the initial success of the one in Chicago, including the 2008 opening of one in Detroit.

Each year, it achieves a 100-percent college acceptance rate for its seniors.

“We like to say you can tie us, but you can’t do better than that,” Howrani said.

Her job is no longer involved in classroom teaching. Instead, she focuses on relationships with donors and foundations, as well as overseeing communications and events.

“We only started in 2008, so unlike a lot of schools whose main source of donations are from alumni, we don’t have that,” Howrani said. “So our donors are usually really unique when it comes to why they give to the school. So there’s always — whoever I meet with — there’s always a really unique personal story about themselves and why they really believe in the mission of the school.”

With the onset of the pandemic, Cristo Rey was particularly affected due to its unique nature. In addition to school being virtual, its students were unable to work last year, resulting in lost experience and a revenue shortfall. For Howrani, the events she normally helps put on were turned virtual.

This year, though, things are getting back to normal. Revenue goals have been hit. Howrani is back to getting coffee and lunches with donors. The students are back in person, and working jobs one day a week.

“It is an amazing experience,” Howrani said of the corporate work-study program. “That’s why most kids come to the school because no one else really offers that opportunity.”

Though Howrani is not Hispanic herself — and said she was surprised to be named a Game Changers honoree — the work she’s done has opened up opportunities and made an impact within the community.

“I kind of identify with that, with the kind of immigrant spirit of that heart of the city,” Howrani said. “And yeah, it’s been a really positive experience. I’ve always wanted to work in the city and make an impact with that.”

At the top of Howrani’s list of goals for the school’s future is attracting more students.

“Our goal is always to get 100 new freshmen every year,” Howrani said. “Through COVID, we’ve had student retention issues. So I’d like to grow the student population. Also I think the diversity of the student population, obviously, hopefully. Our hope is to have the freshmen working again next year.”

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