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"Our bombs are smarter than the average high school student. At least they can find Kuwait." -A. Whitney Brown, Comedian


Student graduation rates that have bombed aside, high school stinks

It stunk for our parents (Grease notwithstanding), it stunk for us and it stinks for our kids.

Oh sure, there's the non-stinking Friday chocolate milk and Friday pep rallies and Friday football games and no school Friday after Thursday Thanksgiving.

Otherwise, high school is just one big acne-riddled bully-beat down locker room awkward gut-wrenching girl crushing pop quiz taking stench-fest.

Somehow we survive what someone once described as "The mouse race that prepares us for the rat race," relatively unscathed (Charles Whitman and Kurt Cobain notwithstanding cause they're no longer standing).

Teachers and administrators - while official implementers (along with parents) of high school torture - are also underpaid saviors and unsung Heroes throughout it; they help mold, meld and maneuver young minds through the battlefield of their adolescence with a skilled, deft touch. The worst teacher I ever had is one of the best people I've ever known.

Where kids go to high school is determined to a large degree by where they are born, the socio-economic environment they are born into and plain dumb luck. I was born in Des Moines, started in Ankeny, ended up in Cambridge, attended Ballard High School and have no idea why. It just kinda worked out that way.    

Yet for some parents, there's more to it than that; many visit with teachers and administrators, illicit opinions from parents and students and gather information that will help them make an informed decision on where to send Junior to be incarcerated/educated.

In other words: they shop for a school. (Yeaaaaa! Shopping!!!)

Which brings us to the nutty retail world of The Unsecret Shopper, and his Secret Shopper review of Des Moines area high schools, Part I. (Part II is Friday.)

Before we continue, let us establish a few things:

1. Des Moines Public Schools are terrible.

2. I know this because it's all I hear and read.

3. I believe everything I hear and read unless it's a bad review of The Unsecret Shopper.

Des Moines High Schools (along with all high schools) do have some issues, particularly East, North and Lincoln, which The Iowa Department of Education has rated as "persistently low-achieving" because of low state test scores and eroding graduation rates.

This review isn't about that. If you want to debate the merits of our education system and the inner machinations of The Des Moines School Board, listen to local talk radio. If you want to see why our entire education system is eroding, watch the incendiary documentary Waiting For Superman, which is scheduled to hit Des Moines theaters in the next few weeks.  If you want to guarantee that your kids get an education that meets your expectations, homeschool them.  

If you want to see how administrators, school employees and students engage a humble blogger posing as a prospective student's parent, then read on.

Speaking of home schooled, that's "Logan's" scenario. He's "my 15 year-old son." Logan and I "are moving from Tyler, Texas to the Des Moines area." I've "home-schooled him since he was 3." I "taught him to play the clarinet and piano." He's "not terribly athletic but is brilliant." (No one asked for a Texas definition of "brilliant.") We'll be "moving to the Des Moines area within 60 days" and I've traveled up here "to check out schools and neighborhoods" to decide on the best fit for "my little Logie." I am self-employed and travel a lot, "so it doesn't matter where we live in the Des Moines area." I just want my son to learn "socialization skills," and "how to avoid using excessive quotation marks."

This presents a few challenges, particularly if I'm thinking about enrolling Logan in a Des Moines Public School, where homeschooling generally doesn't count for credit towards graduation; he'd be starting at zero.

In Texas, I can homeschool him to a PhD

I dropped by 10 Des Moines area high schools over a period of three days: the five Metro public high schools, and five in the 'burbs: East, Hoover, Lincoln, North, Roosevelt, Ankeny, Johnston, Urbandale, Valley and Dowling. I described my scenario to whoever I encountered in the main office, and they took it from there.

Let me write out loud that schools are busy places full of busy teachers and administrators; I certainly didn't expect to be treated like I was shopping for khakis at The Gap.

Yet as efforts intensify to narrow the gap between student test scores and parental and educator expectations, how much effort can or should be made to also teach, by example or by design, at school and at home, the art of simple manners, good ambassadorship and the power of the fundamental precepts of simple human kindness and decency: smile, greet, engage and thank?  Where Math, Science, History and English rule the roost, does being nice lay an egg?

Mouse race, rat race or human race?

Here's how we keep score for human beings:


  Horrific - a customer service nuclear bomb that's every owner's worst nightmare. The kind of service you call your friends to complain about.       

   Weak - a lot of work to be done, but there's hope.       

   Forgettable - not great, not bad. This is where most businesses end up.       

   Strong - some very good things are going on. Just needs some tweaking.       

   Stellar - first-rate, exceptional, off the hizzle. The kind of exemplary service you call your friends to brag about.    


I'm a parent with a son, searching for a school. Will I get treated like I'm at the head of the class, or like the booger-eater in the back row?


(Schools are listed in alphabetical order)

Ankeny High School    


Phone greeting: "Ankeny High School, this is Lorrie, can I help you?" (That's why I (or anyone else) am calling, because we need your help, right? You answered with a very pleasant and smiley tone, Lorrie - now ask a pleasant, smiley open-ended question, like, "What can I help you with?")

Myrna was at the front entrance door and greeted with a big smile and equally large "Hi!" as she checked me in.

She took me over to Tony Aylsworth, the Assistant Principal, who kept the glad-handling going by smiling, shaking my hand, introducing himself and asking for my name.

After I laid out my scenario, Tony jumped enthusiastically into everything AHS. He talked at length about the school's academic, athletic and music achievements, explained that another high school was being built, directed me toward the AHS website which had more info, got me a student handbook which had more info and apologized for not having more printed material with more info. 

The one thing Tony didn't do is ask me any questions - about how many kids I have, their ages, where they go to school, what they're interested in, why we're relocating, etc.

He came close. As Tony rattled off everything he knew about Ankeny High School, he said, "I don't know how many kids you have but..." and then continued. Later he said, "I don't know what your kids are interested in but..." and away he went. D'oh!

You are obviously very passionate about Ankeny High School, Tony, and rightfully so. I grew up just 10 miles north of it, and know Ankeny High School has much to be proud of.

But a conversation is only a conversation if you include the other person in it, especially someone you're meeting for the first time. It's like going on a date with someone (I call it retail dating) and having them ramble on about themselves without seeming like they give a hoot and a holler about you. That's not someone we're likely to go out with again.

 Your enthusiasm was fantastic, Tony! (I challenge the cheerleaders to hook you up with one of their outfits and a pair of pom-poms.) But without asking me a question, it's pretty much like watching a great PowerPoint presentation, and I could have gotten that online and saved myself the $450 round-trip airfare.

I call this engagement, the Third Pillar of Great Customer Service, and there is no question in my mind that you'll remember to engage and ask a question - probably a few - next time. :)

Also, I told you my name - don't forget to use it (as part of that Third Pillar). While you were talking about the facility, you could have also offered me a tour of it. And while you did give me your business card with your contact info on it, you didn't ask for mine. That's a missed opportunity to really glad-handle a parent.

As Tony took me into the main office, I was less than glad to see a very familiar face.

My great fear was that I'd see someone at AHS that I knew there goes my cover; particularly Gary Telford, who'd once taught my own Ballard High School, and is now Ankeny's Athletic Director. Gary was a wonderful teacher and is an all-around great guy, and we've bumped into each other a time or two over the past 25 years.

Make it 26. Gary entered the office just as Tony had left to get a handbook. We recognized each other immediately. (He has one of the smiliest faces on the planet.)

Gary smiled (naturally) and said, "How are you?" and not like he'd just bumped into an unknown Texan.

I smiled back but stayed silent, then decided to let the cat outta the bag as Tony returned.

Tony smiled - kinda; it's no fun being snookered. :) But it's for a great cause, Tony and you did very well. Besides, I also got to reconnect with Gary, who will be retiring after 35 years of positively impacting the lives of young people.

I'd keep a real close eye on Mr. Telford till spring, Tony; he's going to be nothing but trouble. :)



Dowling High School    


Phone greeting: "Dowling Catholic High School, may I help you?" (Nice enough on the phone, but give it a more personal touch by thanking the caller for calling, identifying yourself by name, and asking an open-ended question that requires a more expansive answer than "yes" or "no.")

Joel greeted me at the greeter's counter, listened to why I was there, then pointed and said, "First door. They'll help you."

Sure. But what would be more helpful is if you'd take me where I needed to go, Joel. You could have also asked for my name and introduced me to the proper person: that's real polish from a polished greeter. You were pleasant and flashed a quick and beautiful smile, Joel. Now take it to another level, especially with a parent who's traveled 740 miles to come see you.

Tatia, Dowling's Admission's Assistant, spent the next 60 minutes making me feel like my long journey was worth it.

Tatia greeted with a huge smile that rarely left her face. She used my name repeatedly throughout our incredible tour of Dowling's incredible campus. She remembered details about my son Logan and repeated them to the teachers and students she introduced me to along the way. She wasn't afraid to go right into a classroom where a class was meeting so I could see the teacher/students in action. She took me down every hallway and showed off and described every important room, from band and chorus practice and performance halls to the chapel, gym and cafeteria. And her happy bounce and smile never left her step or face, ever.

Tatia was, in a word, stunning.

An example of that stunningness occurred early on in the tour, when she asked me, "Are you Catholic or Christian?"

Buddhist. Instead I opted for the less bemusing but more accurate, "I'm a Christian."

She explained that Dowling is a private school; that 95% of Dowling students are Catholic, and Catholics and non-Catholics pay tuition, but that the first pays less than the second.

It would have been easy - and typical - for her to lead with this information. Yet she simply brought it up in the normal flow of conversation, and never made me feel like I was getting less of a tour, just because I wasn't Catholic. That was impressive.

What was also impressive was how happy and polite the kids and teachers were. 

Mrs. Arnold was wonderfully engaging. Ally and Emily sung Dowling's praises, as did Kayla, who shook my hand without me extending mine first and even asked me my name, then used it. Holy customer service stud, Batman.  Dr. Jerry Deegan, Dowling's president, was also very friendly and engaging.

Yet it was Tatia who was the flat-out hands-down customer service Dowling High School rock star.

To prove it, I called her back a few days later, not certain that we'd talked about whether Dowling counts homeschooling towards grade-placement and graduation.

She wasn't sure and told me she'd find out. That part really doesn't matter.

What does is that Tatia remembered my name - "Jonnie! How are you?" - and she remembered Logan's, too, plus she also remembered the fact that I'd told her that I had full custody of Logan - I'd mentioned it during my visit - as well as other small details from our conversation.

I was literally listening on the phone with my mouth gaping open; anybody who is that engaging and has that good of a memory, really should be working for the CIA, Tatia. Wow :)

My guess is that Tatia is just a genuinely happy person who is great with people and great at retail, someone who could give you a fun tour of a burning building and convince you to buy it.

There were two missteps, and one was a pretty good-sized one.

First, towards the end of the tour, I asked what anyone contemplating relocating to a city, might ask about it: "What's the good side of Des Moines? What's the bad side?"

Tatia replied, "The west side is definitely the best. The east side is where the poorer families live. I wouldn't want to live on the east side...but that's just me."

You probably should have talked about why west is best and left the negatives to my imagination, Tatia. Yes, you were being honest. Yes, you meant well. Yes, you were simply giving me the answer I was looking for. But tossing a part of your town under the bus tends to toss the entire town under it and to some extent, you and Dowling along with it.

Next time, take the high ground; stay positive, and keep singing the praises of what's good. The visitor will fill in the rest. I know you're likely to beat yourself up about it, but there's no need. Just learn from it - you've got so much of the most important stuff down!

The ball also got dropped a bit as Tatia handed me off to Katie, Dowling's Head of Admissions.

While it may have been proper protocol (Katie was out when I first arrived but had returned as we were finishing up the tour), it also felt like a bit of a letdown, no offense to you, Katie. It's just that Tatia had done a magnificent job up to that moment, and there was no good reason to pass me along. At that point (nobody's fault) the bottom sort of fell out of the energy boat.

Katie, you did just fine. Just don't forget to use my name during our conversation, especially at the end when you shake my hand, which you also didn't do. Yikes! Also, neither you nor Tatia got my contact info. There, right there is a tremendous opportunity to make me feel like I (and my son) am a part of the Dowling family.

One more thing? Give Tatia a raise, otherwise some very smart company is going to hire her away from you. :)


East High School


Phone greeting: "East High School, this is Carol." (You were very pleasant, but try saying "My name is Carol," which is how we introduce ourselves in person, and is more personal. Plus, thank them for calling, and ask how you can help them.)

Entering the office, I walked up to Carol's desk and told her why I was there. She said, unsmilingly, "I don't know...what can I tell you...what are you trying to find out?"

I explained a few more times - four, actually. I think you were confused as to what I wanted, Carol, and I understand your frustration. But you never smiled, and became what I would call rude. There are better ways to treat parents of prospective students, Carol.

JoAnne, who was nearby, started to tell me a bit about EHS.

"It's diverse...VERY diverse," she said and then let out a sarcastic chortle.


At that point I got the feeling that no one was terribly enthusiastic about EHS, or me being inside it.

Roxanne, a counselor, showed up just in time, with a beautiful smile and engaging manner.

"Let's go where it's quiet," she said. I expected to be led into her office. Instead, she took me out into the hallway, where we sat down on a stone seat.  

No problem.

Roxanne started almost immediately by telling me that East is "a persistently low achieving school" with "the lowest test scores." 

That's kind of like a waiter telling you that the restaurant has been shut down several times by the Department of Health, then handing you a menu.

Roxanne recovered nicely by saying that East "has a new administration, new management, new everything." Next time, start with that, Roxanne. Good news first blunts the force of the not so good news later. ("Honey, I love you. Now, about the car...") But once you've started with bad, it's really hard to recover.

Roxanne did a nice job of describing college credit classes at East"You get DMACC credit without DMACC prices," she said. Awesome! "Courses are subject to change, due to budget cuts." Not so awesome!  

Roxanne also did a great job of selling East, passionately describing its great softball teams, band, chorus and drama programs.

Roxanne also asked me some nice questions about Logan. However, as soon as I told her he was home-schooled, she said, "His credits won't count. He'll be starting at zero."

That didn't sound good. I remember getting a lot of zeros in high school, and they were generally not well-received.

That's a real bummer for you real homeschoolers, although I'm sure you figure out a way through it. Roxanne wanted to introduce me to another advisor who she said could perhaps do just that, but the person never materialized.

At that point, Roxanne asked me if I wanted to take a tour. That was a nice offer. A better one would be, "Let's take a tour." It has a more engaging feel to it, Roxanne. And don't worry; the person will tell you if they can, without you giving them the option of that they can't.

Roxanne didn't use my name and didn't thank me at the end but did shake my hand and flashed her adorable smile. She also didn't get my contact info, or even an email address, which she could have used to send me a nice thank-you note for stopping in - just a thought. :)

You were kind and engaging, Roxanne. You took time out of your busy schedule to sit down and chat with me (in the privacy of the echoing hallway :)) Just remember to lead with the positives, because East is a beautiful school, and deserves it.     


Hoover High School


Phone greeting: "Thank you for calling Hoover (indecipherable) this is (Elaine?). Can I help you?" (A nice, happy delivery but slow down a bit so an old man can understand you, and lose that old-school closed-ended question, Elaine - if that's your name! :))

Candy greeted me in the hall with an unsmiling "hi" but did let one come to her face as she led me towards Doug Wheeler, Hoover's principal, who was also in the hall and apologized for not being able to engage me just then because he was on lunch hallway duty. Doug smiled and kindly invited me to come back later that afternoon when he could give me a tour. I said yes but was lying and didn't know it, as I had another dealio scheduled.

I came back the next day, undealioed, and went into the main office, where Mary Lou smiled and said "hi," then started to speak about Hoover.

"We have great diversity. What can I tell you?"

She led me into the office of the man who would have much more to share.

"This man is relocating and wants to know more about Hoover. Oh, I didn't ask you your name," she said, thoughtfully.

"Jonnie," I reasonably replied.

"Jon? Jon - uh, Jonnie, this is Melvin Green, our Vice Principal."

Nice recovery, Mary Lou. :)

Melvin shook my hand, politely thanked me for stopping by, welcomed me to Hoover then launched into a very passionate and positive description of the school.

"We were built in the late 60's, the newest school in the district," he told me, "and we're not stuck in the old paradigm." He rightfully bragged that Hoover "has the lowest dropout rate and highest rate of re-engaging students," and said that "there are opportunities for kids to get involved," that "we emphasize diversity," and that "all of our kids get along."

Okay, so the last serving was a bologna sandwich. But everything leading up to it was pretty much delicious pizza, tater tots and chocolate milk.

Melvin is a wonderfully endearing man who is very passionate about Hoover and its students - and it shows.

Unfortunately, he was so wrapped up in his description of Hoover that he forgot to ask me a single question - at the beginning, in the middle or at the end. He doesn't know how many kids I have, their ages, what they're interested in, when we're moving, why we're moving, what I do - anything. 


He never asked me if I wanted to take a tour of the school.

Ouch II.

Melvin was extremely gracious at the end and said "Thank you, sir." That's respectful but not personable. Melvin, my name is Jonnie; if you don't remember it, then ask me, no problem.

You're a very passionate man, Melvin, and thank you for being so. But a 10 minute conversation with you can't just be you talking, otherwise it's a monologue and not a conversation, and I dated her. As passionate as you are about your school, I'm probably just as passionate about my son. So ask me about him, step into our world, plug into our imagination, dial into our dreams, our hopes, our everything, because our everything is pretty cool, and certainly worth knowing.

Do that, Melvin, and we'll enthusiastically call Hoover, home. Why wouldn't we?  


Johnston High School


Phone greeting: "Good afternoon, Johnston High School, this is C(K)athy." (Nicely delivered, just change the "this is" to "my name is" for a more personal touch, and don't forget to thank them for calling at the beginning and ask them how you can help them at the end.)

In the main office, Lois, unsmiling, glanced between me and her computer monitor as she said, "Hi, how can I help you?" Awesome open-ended question, Lois. Just make sure you're looking at me when you ask it, since that dumb monitor can't answer, anyway. :) You also flashed a nice smile at the end, which would look even better at the beginning, don't you think?? :)

Audrey Bell, a Johnston High School guidance counselor, was having a conversation with Mrs. Marckmann at the front desk. In the meantime I engaged Isaac, a JHS football player and band member who should immediately be hired as a school spokesperson. He was extremely articulate, passionate about Johnston High School and not only said "You should enroll Logan here" (which no one else, teacher or administrator, said, in 10 school visits - that's called asking for the sale, kid) but also said he looked forward to meeting him, and even welcomed me back as I left!

Based upon Isaac, I was ready to sign the admission papers.

Audrey finished her convo, introduced herself, smiled, shook my hand, got my name and invited me into her office, where she talked excitedly about everything JHS has to offer.

As soon as I mentioned that Logan was homeschooled, she gave me the bad news about none of that being applicable to his graduation, but did say that perhaps he could take online classes and test out. That made me feel like not all was lost. Nice job!

Audrey also did a nice job of giving me a tour of the school. She pointed out and sang the praises of Brian Lutter, the Phys Ed teacher, who was working out with students in a massive weight and workout room that I wanted to join. She remembered Logan's affinity for music, showing off an immense band room that would induce envy from Carnegie Hall players, as well as a cafeteria with one of the most breathtaking views I've ever seen. That would make "Monday's mystery loaf" a bit more digestible, I suspect.

What didn't sit quite as well was her answer to the question "Is there a good side of town and a bad side of town?"

"Unofficially, yes," she said. Uh-oh. Here it comes...

"The best place for your family is west."

Yee-haw! Awesome answer! Rescind the uh-ho!

Then: "If I lived downtown, I wouldn't put my kid in the Des Moines Public Schools. They've had a lot of issues."

Rescind the rescindsion. Cue the uh-oh. Feels like mystery loaf.  

You just can't go there, Audrey. I know you meant well. But you can't go there, not in your position. You really had the right answer by holding up your own side of town. Stay with it, and what is left unsaid will be heard, loud and clear.

You also stopped and talked to two JHS students but didn't introduce me - you coulda. You also didn't use my name or Logan's during our conversation - you shoulda. You also didn't ask for my contact info - you woulda, had you known the Six Pillars of Great Customer Service. :)

What I also know is that you have an extraordinary passion for Johnston High School, and you allowed it to show through; that is a talent that you were born with, and a skill you can teach others.

Now go do it. :)

TOMORROW: Part II, including Secret Shopper reviews of Lincoln, North, Roosevelt, Urbandale and Valley.


Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and host of The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show, Saturday mornings 8-9am, on 1350, KRNT.       


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Phone: 515-480-4190

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