After waiting a moment to interject into the conversation, an onlooker begins to ask the all-too-familiar question. But, Debbie Phelps graciously lends a handshake and the proper answer prior to the question being fully formed.
“Yes,” she says, enthusiastically and excitedly. “I am Debbie Phelps, executive director of the Education Foundation for Baltimore County Public Schools. Mother to Hilary, Whitney and Michael. Grandmother to Taylor, Connor, Boomer and Alexander.”
The question would have focused on the latter part of the answer had it been completed, but the conversation always becomes even more meaningful with Debbie’s generous willingness to share the whole story. That story is always carefully balanced for each of the characters, introduced chronologically from her oldest daughter to her newest grandson. Somewhere in the middle, she’ll proudly mention her son in a way that almost inconspicuously references that the rest of the world knows him as the greatest Olympian to ever live. Without hesitation, she politely and confidently shifts the conversation to the newest part of the story.
To her, it’s perhaps the most surprising chapter.
She’s been one of the country’s most beloved mothers for more than a decade since becoming a staple of NBC’s Olympics coverage in Athens in 2004. She’s been a grandmother for almost as long. She’s also a successful author and professional speaker. But, she was two years away from retirement as a middle school principal when an upstart 30-year-old new superintendent for Baltimore County Public Schools called her into his office just a few weeks on the job.
“If you would have told me five years ago that not only would I not be retired from the school system, but also that I’d be out of the schoolhouse running a charity, I would have said you were crazy,” Debbie says. “But, Dr. S. Dallas Dance had a vision for what I could bring to the school system through the foundation, and I couldn’t tell my boss ‘No, I can’t.’”
Dr. Dance jokes he had no idea whether or not Debbie was going to take the job, and that she could have easily turned him down. Those who know Debbie laugh at the part about her potentially saying “no.” Debbie Phelps doesn’t do “no.” She finds a way.
That way was briefly unclear for her in accepting the role as the executive director of the Education Foundation for Baltimore County Public Schools. The 501(c)(3) had existed for the previous 20 years primarily to serve as a bank account for the occasional school donation. She literally went overnight from having relative autonomy as the principal of a school, able to act swiftly and decisively, to answering to a board of directors comprised entirely of volunteers who had grown accustomed to moving slowly.
The Phelps family only knows one speed, and it is fast.
Despite spending the entirety of her career in a schoolhouse and having little formal experience in the business world, Debbie caught on quickly. She worked tirelessly learning the ins and outs of the local business community and recruiting dozens of talented professionals to assume thankless positions on boards and committees. In route to becoming perhaps the most influential cheerleader and spokesperson for local education, she formed a remarkable family of local business leaders who worked as a team with her as their leader. Just five short years later, the organization is now a model for success for school system based charities across the country.
Today, the Education Foundation raises hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to support local education through an assortment of events, partnerships and giving programs. The money is distributed back to students, teachers and families through scholarships and grants that advance 21st century-themed learning and enrichment. It has served as a leader in promoting improved opportunities and innovative solutions to challenges facing public education. This includes supporting the creation of makerspaces in schools that encourage skill-based learning, apprenticeships and career- and technology-based education programs, and many other ideas born from teachers and students with visions in the schoolhouse that are brought to life through the financial support of the Education Foundation that otherwise would not be possible.
Her work has earned her a few more recent medals of her own, as she was recognized for her work with the charity through the Top 100 Women awards by the Maryland Daily Record and is the recipient the Smart CEO BRAVA Award. She has a tendency to get choked up when thanking those who helped, all of whom are quick to point out that they are just grateful for the opportunity to be a part of her story in building her vision for the future of Baltimore County Public Schools.
To learn more about Debbie Phelps and how you can support the Education Foundation, visit EducationFoundationBCPS.org