Providing the best possible academic opportunities for students in Baltimore County Public Schools
Deborah S. Phelps is the executive director of the Education Foundation of Baltimore County Public Schools, Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Since 1992, the Foundation has attracted and directed public funds to help Baltimore County’s public school system grow and provide every student with a globally competitive standard of education. The Foundation’s grants, initiatives, and scholarships focus on all kinds of students and teachers, and span various curricula in physical and digital learning environments.
In recognition of her work, Debbie has been named a Baltimore County Public School’s Teacher of the Year Finalist, two-time Maryland Family & Consumer Science Teacher of the Year, and Baltimore County’s “Baby Boomer of the Year” (2004), among other honors. Her memoir, A Mother for All Seasons, charts her experience as an educator and single mother of three extraordinary athletes, including her son, U.S. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps—the most decorated Olympian in history.
OFFIT KURMAN: Tell us about your background and history with the Education Foundation of BCPS.
DEBORAH PHELPS: My background in education started back in 1973 when I was a brand new teacher in Havre de Grace Middle School in Harford County. I was so excited about being a teacher of Home Economics, which is now called Family Consumer Science. My journey in Harford County led me from Havre de Grace Middle to opening North Harford Middle, C. Milton Wright, and then at Southampton.
It was after spending 20 years in Harford County that I decided to change counties, and I moved to Baltimore County. I also was a Family Consumer Science teacher then, but I was part of the science magnet at Southwest Academy, where I wrote an award-winning food science and biotech curriculum. It was very exciting to be able to do that and launch that in Baltimore County. From a teaching position to Department Chair, Team Leader, glorified Dean of Discipline at a middle school, I eventually was named Principal of Windsor Mill Middle School. I was able to open that in 2006.
Leading into that principalship, I did serve at the district office as assistant to the executive director. I helped him oversee 32 schools in Baltimore County. Spending all my life on the teaching and learning side of the school district, it wasn’t until 2012 when this last part of my career ladder in education took me to the business side. In the business side I was able to embrace a nonprofit of our school district that was founded in 1992 and take on the executive director position for a 15-member board. Today, our board is 30-plus strong.
Was it a challenge to transition from the teaching side to the administration side?
In my professional career I was always very happy spending time in the schoolhouse. I love being with children. I love being able to impact teachers. I love being able to lead a school with very high expectations. That day back in 2012 when Dr. Dance called me to his office to talk to me about the Foundation, I was a very happy, satisfied principal. I went through reconstruction of my staff. We weren’t progressing as fast as we should in academic performance, so we had to kind of take a new look on life and expectation. When he asked me to be the executive director, I was very hesitant, as at that time I was looking at retiring in 2016. I remember in our conversation, him saying to me, “I want you to be the executive director of the Foundation,” and I said “okay, but I’m leaving in 2016.” He’s like, “Okay, you can leave. It’s all right. But I need for you to take this Foundation and really transform it, shift the culture, and build it up.” I said, “okay, all right,” but you see, in my generation, when a superintendent asks us to do things, we do it. I put up no argument saying, “no sir, I want to stay in my schoolhouse,” because it became a career opportunity for me. It became an opportunity to go into the business world and to be able to tell the story of Baltimore County Public Schools, to be able to tell our successes and the expectations that we have in our school.
When 2016 came around, and I was getting ready to retire, I had that meeting again with our superintendent, and I said to him, “Sir, I want to serve four more years with you.” He was like, “I thought you wanted to retire in 2016.” I said, “I did, but I’ve grown to love what I do. We’re making a difference for our schools. That’s what is really important right now, sitting in this position: to be able to know the impact that we’re making in 173 schools in Baltimore County through the Foundation’s work.
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