Hello shoppers...

 ...and welcome back to this Part II Secret Shopper review of Des Moines area high schools, which includes Lincoln, North, Roosevelt, Urbandale and Valley.

If you'd like to read Part I first, which includes Ankeny, Dowling, East, Hoover, Johnston and about 472 more words but much better jokes than the one you're about to embark upon, click this sentence.

The goal of both? To see if teachers, administrators and support staff will right-brain smile, greet, engage and thank (four of my Six Pillars of Great Customer Service) even while they left-brain teach and trouble-shoot.

The scenario for all? I am looking for a school and a neighborhood to move to from Tyler, Texas with my 15 year-old son, Logan, who I've homeschooled since 3 and now want socially immersed until 18. 

How we score?


  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.    


Five down, five to go - let's see if I get treated like a Homecoming King, or Carrie.


Lincoln High School


Phone greeting: "Good afternoon, Lincoln High School." (Pleasant voice, nice salutation at the beginning, now personalize it with "My name is" and "how can I help you?")

Lincoln was the most secure high school I visited; the doors were locked and I had to ring a buzzer which brought a woman's voice on the intercom: "Can I help you?" It was a closed-ended question but, then again, it was a closed-ended door so felt appropriate. I explained my scenario and she remotely unlocked the door. 

I encountered the nice smile of Emily in the main office. She looked across at Leanne and told her why I was there. Leanne said (to both of us), "Have him go down to the VP's office." 

It is one of the interesting curiosities of how we roll as human beings that someone will give a directive to someone else to give to us, even though the person for whom the directive is intended is right there. It's not wrong, just sort of funny and interesting.

Emily told me what Leanne had just told her within earshot of both of us, and so I rolled down to the VP's office, where Gladys greeted with a closed-ended and unsmiling "Can I help you?" If I'm standing at your desk and looking at you helplessly, odds are I need help, Gladys. Try a smiling and open-ended "What can I help you with?" It sounds like you really want to help me - and I know you did. :)

I explained why I was there and what Leanne and Emily had told me to do. Gladys looked at me for just a second and then said, somewhat strangely, "What do you want to do?"

Remember, I'd told her and everyone else that I was visiting from Texas because my son and I were planning on moving to the area, and I was in town to visit schools and neighborhoods, to help determine where we were going to live.

I said what I thought was obvious, but okay: "I want to see the school."

"You can go down to the main office and get a pass," Gladys replied.

And so I dutifully walked back to where I'd already been and told Emily what Gladys had said. She handed me an adhesive visitor's badge and instructed me to stick it to my shirt, which I did.

I then walked out of the office, alone, and into a school with over 2,000 students.

Remember, this is a heavily secure, locked down high school. Yet I'd been buzzed in right away; no one had physically greeted me as I came in, and no one had asked to see my ID.  I'd simply been turned loose to wander the hallways of the largest high school in the state, rendering the security system that protects it, useless.

And so for nearly 20 minutes I walked, down one hallway, then another, and another. I walked pass classrooms full of bright, eager minds, being taught by determined, compassionate teachers. I walked past the occasional employee who sometimes glanced my way but often not at all. I walked along the polished hallways of 2nd Floor, then 3rd Floor, then 1st, without anyone questioning why I was there; I had my yellow visitor's pass on - that was, understandably, enough.

I was engaged by two people. First, Sandy, a librarian, flashed a nice smile and gave a quick "hi" as I approached. Then Roberta, the assistant athletic director, spotted me.

"Can I help you?" she asked closed-endedly, a bit suspiciously and totally reasonably of an adult wearing an unsigned visitor's pass and wandering her halls.

After explaining why I was there and what I was doing, Roberta, very thoughtfully, took me to the choir room, where a group of talented vocalists were rehearing All-State Music for the first time. She even more thoughtfully introduced me to the choir and the director. The thoughtfulness sort of ended when she passed me off to a just passing by Steven, the Lincoln High drum major, who I followed to the band room.

Seeing that the band instructor was occupied, I walked back upstairs, did a few more laps inside the building then headed for the door I'd originally entered, toward my awaiting Prius.

And that - after a nearly 800 mile journey from East Texas - was my 28 minute tour of Lincoln High School.   


North High School

Phone greeting: "Thank you for calling North High School. This is Jolene, how can I help you?" (Say "My name is" instead of "This is" Jolene, for a more personal touch. Otherwise, it's the best phone greeting of all 10 schools. Awesome job, Jolene!!)  

The main sign on the North High campus read: July Registration 26 9-2 27 1-7 Aug 2 football 9am

That could probably be updated.

They were doing a lot of updating at NHS; the entire building is being remodeled and so is in a bit of a state of controlled chaos.

What wasn't chaotic was Brady, who, dapperly dressed, calmly and kindly greeted me with a smile outside, at the top of the steps.

After I explained why I was there, Brady said, "There's a lot of diversity here, low economic status."

Okay. You might want to lead with something other than that, but okay.

"Johnston is the opposite," he continued. "Low diversity, high economic status."

While that may be true, there are probably better ways to sell a prospective parent on the merits of North.   

Brady invited me to look around the building, and told me I could get a visitor's badge in the office - although he neglected to tell me where that was at. He also could have taken me there, although I understood that he was busy.

They were also busy in the office. There were several students and teachers hovering around the two receptionists, one of whom was Karen, who greeted me with an unsmiling "hi" as she also dealt with a student. The woman working beside her, who was on the phone in the office as I entered, sort of slammed it down and said "I can't take care of that today" to no one in particular.

A teacher brought in a student who was clearly in trouble. "Sit there and don't move," he said, sitting the young man next to me.

The kid soon stood up, which didn't sit well with either of the receptionists, who, along with the teacher, expressed their displeasure. 

"He told you not to move," said the receptionist. "You move, you get in trouble," chimed in Karen. "You weren't supposed to move, and you moved," added the teacher.

I sat, motionless.

In a few minutes, Jessica Gogerty, a School Improvement Leader, appeared.

"Let me take care of this boy first, and then you're up," she said.

It's a trick, kid - don't fall for it.

The situation was quickly handled, and I was invited into Jessica's office, where she kindly smiled, greeted me, offered me a chair and began to talk about the merits of North High School.

"There's a rich diversity at North," she began. "We have low test scores, and the highest poverty level."

I'd heard a similar sales pitch from Brady.

Jessica began talking about Matt Smith, the new North High Principal, and her eyes lit up like the NHS basketball scoreboard.

"Our new principal just started this year. He's quite a dynamic guy, and we're very excited about having him here." Matt, it turns out, is also a transplanted Texan. Hope he doesn't show up and want to start comparing notes about our home states. (Truth be told, I did live in Texas for a while, just not long enough to have a cogent conversation about it with a top-level administrator, no matter how good at being full of flop I am.)

Someone who apparently transplanted himself right out of job, according to Jessica, was the previous principal.

"Our principle retired in 2003 and was replaced by a man who was nice but was in over his head and just not up to the job."

I'll put that in the "more information than I needed to know" file.

Jessica had left her door open while we chatted, which several kids saw, reasonably enough, as an open door invitation to walk in and chew the fat.

"I'm in a meeting right now," Jessica patiently told several students who walked in. Close the door and it may at least slow them down.

Jessica spoke passionately and lovingly about North High School.

"It's a great place for our students to learn and grow. My daughter attends here and takes accelerated classes at Central Campus."

That said a lot.

"Athletically, we don't win a lot of games," she went on. "But we rule the roost in academic contests."

My son's a chip off the ole blockhead - which means his participation in NHS athletics would lead to further losses.

Jessica also said something that was quite endearing.

"Walk around, talk to other schools, see what you think." That comes from someone who obviously doesn't just care about North High School, but cares, period.

Jessica asked me a question or two and could have asked a few more. She didn't say my name during our conversation, or refer to Logan by his. She also didn't get my follow-up information, which would have allowed her to shoot me off a quick thank-you email that would have added some extra polish to impress a parent - always important, but especially when you're a school that's struggling.

As we finished up, I walked to the door and turned around to thank her; too slow, poke! She had already turned away and was engaging another student who sat outside her office.

Hope you didn't move, kid.

As I walked out the main door, something Jessica said kept coming back to me.

"I have a lot of faith in this school."

You took the words right out of every teacher's and administrator's mouth, Jessica.


Roosevelt High School


Phone greeting: "Roosevelt High School, Kim speaking. How can I help you?" (GREAT energy, Kim! And awesome job with the open-ended question! Now add a "Thank you for calling" at the beginning, and try "My name is Kim" instead and you'll be a phone answering rock-star! Great job!)

Dona and Julie were amazing.

First, Dona; she was engaged on the phone as I entered the main office but still smiled and acknowledged me. Nice job!

Then Julie - after I told her why I was there - led me to the Vice Principal's office instead of pointing. Nice job II!

The VP wasn't around nor was anyone else who could take me on a tour or engage me about Roosevelt, so Julie thoughtfully did so.

She mentioned that Logan's homeschooling credits wouldn't count, talked enthusiastically about Central Campus and was extremely kind, engaging, friendly and thoughtful.

This is why it's hard to share the following with you.

Julie asked me what I was looking for in a school, for Logan, and I replied that it was socialization - learning how to matriculate with the world. Being able to get along with other people, I told her, was the most important factor in selecting a high school for my son, more than academics ("He's brilliant") or athletics ("He can't juggle one ball").

"Socialization..." she replied, letting it hang there for a moment.

I asked her why she'd paused.

She looked at me, thoughtfully.

"I took my kids out of Des Moines Public Schools because of academics," said the Roosevelt employee. "Urbandale, West Des Moines, Johnston - that's what you should look at. They all have good programs. I could get in trouble for telling you that."

Julie instantly became my personal hero.

But I also have a professional responsibility to hold employees, managers, business owners and myself accountable for the way we engage consumers.

I respect Julie for doing what she thought was right; there are just better, more productive ways to do it than to toss your employer under the bus.

I hope you find those ways, Julie; the Des Moines school system needs them.


Urbandale High School


Phone greeting: "Urbandale High School, this is Cheryl." (That's an average greeting for an above average school, Cheryl. Give it some oomph! How about a "Thank you for calling" at the beginning, and a "how can I help you?" at the end? And remember, you'd never greet someone in person with "This is Cheryl." Instead, try "My name is Cheryl." It's a small difference that makes a big impact!)

Liz greeted me with a quick but smile-free "hi" as I approached. After explaining why I was there, she pointed towards Tim Carver, the Assistant Principal, who warmly greeted me, shook my hand, asked for my name but forgot to give his own until a bit later.

After I told Tim why I was there, he said something very classy: "You can't go wrong with any Des Moines schools," and meant it. Nice job!

Still, Tim seemed a big disengaged at first; he rattled off facts and stats about Urbandale, reciting them by rote rather than selling them from the heart. He described Urbandale's "connections" program, which helps kids, reasonably enough, connect, creating faster, deeper bonds while, very smartly, reducing the risk of student violence.

Tim started to say, "Well, it's Football Friday so we're all pretty busy around here..." - here came my cue to scram - then caught himself, paused, rethought it, then said the six most beautiful words an administrator can say to a parent.

"What is your son interested in?"

I told him: "Clarinet and piano."

You would have thought I said, "In handing you a check for $1,000,000."

"Jonnie, we have a strong music program," he said through a smile, saying my name for the first time. From that point forward, Tim was totally engaged and energized. He suggested we go on a tour of the Campus, which we did. He showed off UHS's stunning Performing Arts Center, showed me the chorus and band rehearsal rooms and introduced me to Mr. Peterson and Mr. Keller, the band directors.

I had a bit of a freak out moment when I thought I saw a look of You look like the Unsecret Shopper recognition in Mr. Keller's eyes, but he either played it cool and alerted school officials later, or, like most people, hasn't read the blog, doesn't listen to the show and wouldn't know me if he ran over me with the xylophone.

Later, I thought it was very cool of Tim to say that "Johnston and Waukee, our neighbors, are growing," without adding but they totally suck, and here's why.

Back in his office, Tim encouraged me to call him if I had any questions, shook my hand, thanked me for coming and told me to have a great day. Awesome job!

You could have and should have asked me for my contact info, Tim, but then again, no one did, so you're in good company. :) You started out a bit detached, but once you tached, you rocked!

The kids may have "connections," but you just made one. :)


Valley High School


Phone greeting: "Valley High School (indecipherable) Baker speaking." (I suspect you were busy when I called, and that's understood. But the greatest talent is to never let people know that, especially callers. Slow down, enunciate and treat every word you say as important, because it is. :))

I entered the building and was greeted with a smile by the sitting Tim, the security guard.

I told him why I was there, to which he responded with something he's probably said over 1,203,985,112,779,001 times since last Tuesday: "You want the nickel tour or the dime tour?"

I.e. do you want me to point to where you have to go, or do you want to make me get up off my fanny and take you there?

No, Tim - I want the $500,000 tour. Everybody does. But when you ask, and especially when you ask like that, it makes us feel like we're not worth the nickel, let alone the dime.

Next time, don't ask. Just do. Thank you.

In the Administration Office Tim directed me to, Mrs. Hartz greeted me with a quick smile and nice "Hi."

I explained my Texas/kid/homeschooling dealio, to which she replied, "We're a very nice school...she'll have some handouts for you in counseling."

Oh. Is that when the very nice stuff will start?

Mrs. Hartz, I'm sure you are a very nice person, working for a very nice school, don't get me wrong. But unless you back up your words with actions - like asking me my name, using it while we talked, telling me who "she" is, why I need to see her and maybe even taking me to her office, ya know, to be very nice - it's kinda like you're Tim, only without the guard outfit.

Very nice school? Sure. Just remember the mission statement of the Buyosphere: Live up to the promise of your marketing.

I entered the Counseling office, told Mrs. Rourke why I was there and watched her stand up and say, pleasantly enough but without a smile, "Let me get you a class catalog and calendar."

Oh. Will it say when the very niceness is scheduled to start?

When it comes to the battle of the knowledge and experience of People (who I'd come to see) vs. the information written on sheets of Paper (which I could see online), People win, every time. I was there to see some, about Valley, where people work and learn and stuff.

She came back, packet and calendar in hand, laid them on me, then asked me a back-breaker of a closed-ended question: "Is there anything I can answer for you?"

Nope. I just drove all the way up here from Texas to get these dead trees, which contain the sum whole parts of the Valley High School experience. I'm solid!

You were pleasant enough, Mrs. Rourke, and I know you were being polite. But I told you I'd never been to Des Moines and that I was visiting from Texas, nearly 800 miles from where you were asking me if you could answer anything for me about a school that I'd never seen, in a town I'd never been to, both of which I was visiting specifically because I was looking for answers.

Clearly, what you can answer for me is everything, since I'm Sergeant Schultz, and know nothing.

Then the derailed train burst into flames.

"If you decided on Valley, you can schedule a time to meet with a counselor and go over everything."

But...isn't that why I came here, to find someone who could help me decide BEFORE I decide? Isn't that what the counselors do? HELP parents and students decide on whether Valley is where they're deciding to decide on, BEFORE they decide it?

I decided I knew enough. Mrs. Rourke thanked me through a friendly smile, and that was that: no contact info asked for, no name used during the conversation, no asking me a single question about my son, myself, our lives, our anything, and no offering to introduce me to someone who could give me a tour, tell me the 4-1-1, sell me the program or feed me a cookie. 

It was time to head back to the Longhorn State.



High Schools generally can't afford to hire professional tour guides. Yet Tatia (Dowling), Katie (Johnston) and Tim (Urbandale) certainly played the role (Honorable mention - Isaac, the customer service stud from Dowling); all three of you were enthusiastic, engaging, passionate, authentic and, in spite of the trash talk from the girls, awesome! You are wonderful assets for your respective schools, which are very lucky to have you on their payroll. Thank you so much for making my trip up from Texas, worth it! :)

For the rest of the high schools - for all of them, actually - the good work continues. May the wind be at your backs.

As the teachers, administrators and support staff inside our local high schools - all of them, not just those with a Des Moines zip code - work tirelessly and thanklessly to make sure the education machine keeps building young people who can do more than flip a burger or write a blog, may they also stop on occasion and remind themselves of the importance of lessons not found in textbooks but in laughter, in love not lectures, learned when they too were children, who smiled at strangers, greeted without fear, engaged without hesitation and thanked, and meant it.

It is an example as adults that you can lead by, a code that your children one day may live by.

Teach your children well.  


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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