One of Dallas Dance's first initiatives after taking over the Baltimore County Public School system last summer was, as it has turned out, one of the simplest decisions he has had to make.
Dance made a commitment to the Board of Education and Education Foundation for Baltimore County Public Schools that the foundation — a 501(c)(3) that raises money and distributes it to schools for programming and curriculum initiatives — would get a full-time director to expand its reach.
When Dance asked for recommendations, a clear choice emerged.
"When I kept asking folks who would be able to lead that, I literally asked maybe 12 people, and 10 out of the 12 said, 'Debbie Phelps,'" Dance said.
Phelps, mother of retired Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and a lifelong educator in Baltimore County, accepted the role as director last summer, and has spent the last year learning about her new role and helping to expand the supplemental resources available to her former peers in the schoolhouse.
"I think when you look at building the awareness of anything that's brand new, you need somebody who actually is a social person to get the word out, but you also need somebody who knows Baltimore County.
"You don't want somebody out there being the messenger for a system and they don't know the system. Debbie has put her heart and soul into the system in various positions, most recently as a principal, and any of the initiatives we have going on impact principals. We wanted somebody who could talk to businesses, but also talk to principals about them," Dance said.
In becoming the face of the foundation, Phelps said she had to learn about it herself. She said she knew "very little" about the foundation, despite the fact that Windsor Mill Middle School where she was principal, received a grant from the organization several years ago.
"My first year on the job [with the foundation], I spent studying the first 20 years of the foundation, working with my board of directors, finding out who they were, and working on the infrastructure, as well as awareness in the community," said Phelps, who raised her children in Towson.
The foundation, under Phelps, was charged with three main objectives.
The first was to "mobilize the community to financially support system-based projects" such as the ongoing digital conversion and corresponding curriculum update, Phelps said.
The second objective was to increase the available scholarship dollars to county students and available grant money to county schools. Phelps said $35,000 in grants were awarded last year, up from $15,000 the previous year. This year, $45,000 in grant money is earmarked, Phelps said.
Getting the foundation's message out into the county's schoolhouses proved easy, given her familiarity with so many of the principals. Transforming the foundation, which has an all-volunteer board, required a "culture shift," Phelps said.
In the past, the foundation's board would typically funnel donations to schools earmarked by area businesses. Now, the foundation is more involved in fundraising, both by hosting events and networking with area businesses.
Phelps admits "there's definitely a name recognition" that helps her connect with area business leaders, but she is quick to point out that just as important as her son's success was the fact that all three of her children went through county schools in Towson.
"I'm very proud and happy to say my children were part of BCPS," she said. "We're a great school system."
As Phelps embarks on her second year as director of the foundation, the focus has turned to fundraising through community events. On Monday, Sept. 30, the foundation will host its first golf and tennis tournament at Woodholme Country Club. Two weeks later, on Oct. 14, a portion of sales at the Barnes & Noble stores in Pikesville, White Marsh and Towson will go to the foundation.
The fall's event slate rounds out with a "Celebration of Mom" event on Saturday, Nov. 23, at Port Discovery. Phelps said the event, which will bring students and families at Baltimore City and Baltimore County Title I schools together to honor the significant female in their lives, will have a special guest that only she could help swing: Michael Phelps.
"There's some things that mommas can do," she said. "Not everything, but some things."