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Making the Grade with Lynn Mackey

Education helped Lynn Mackey overcome personal challenges. Now, she’s working to ensure that every child in Contra Costa County has the same opportunity.


“I bring a nice balance of continuity and change,” says Lynn Mackey, Contra Costa County’s new superintendent of schools.

Photo by Cali Godley

Lynn Mackey never pictured herself knocking on doors across Contra Costa County—or anywhere else. The idea was too scary for the self-described introvert. But becoming the county’s superintendent of schools would require overcoming her fears. So, last year, the longtime educator and first-time candidate for public office hit the streets.

“Everyone was gracious and civil,” Mackey says. “Whether they have children or not, people want to do more for education and want students to thrive.”

Talking to residents, Mackey also discovered that many didn’t understand the county superintendent’s role. She explains, “Everywhere I went, they thought I was running in their local school district or that I would be the boss of all the districts.”

In reality, the superintendent is the chief executive officer of the Contra Costa County Office of Education, responsible for ensuring that every one of the nearly 180,000 students in the county’s 18 school districts receives a high-quality education. Mackey approves district budgets and advocates for education with the legislature and the public. Her office also provides services for at-risk students and those in special-education and career- and technical-education programs.

The job she assumed on January 7, 2019, is one she hadn’t considered until her predecessor, Karen Sakata, decided to retire. But Mackey had worked in the County Office of Education for more than 21 years and served as the deputy superintendent. She also holds a master’s degree in educational leadership from Cal State East Bay.

“It came down to this: Who better than me? I so strongly believe in our mission,” says the lifelong Contra Costa resident.

Sakata—who worked with Mackey for 12 years—agrees. “[Mackey] has been a successful, stellar teacher and administrator,” Sakata says. “It’s important to me, after giving 44 years to education, to have someone [as superintendent] who’s visionary and can take what’s been done and expand on it. She’s fabulous.”


Transformation Through Education

The idea that Mackey would lead the county’s schools once seemed far-fetched. After all, she dropped out of middle school.

“I definitely wasn’t the model student on a path to becoming superintendent,” admits Mackey, who developed a truancy problem in sixth grade and eventually left school altogether.

A runaway at age 13 and a mother by 15, Mackey decided to change her life after her daughter started school. She completed a GED, enrolled at Diablo Valley College, and ultimately earned her bachelor’s degree from Mills College.

“I wanted to be self-sufficient,” she says. “I went back to school with rudimentary academic skills but had amazing teachers who encouraged me. It felt like a launching pad. I really believe education is a great equalizer.”

Today, Mackey describes herself as “deeply passionate” about the programs her office runs for young people who have fallen through the cracks or been removed from classrooms. Her goal is to reduce the number of students assigned to court and community schools because of their behavioral or attendance issues, expulsion from local schools, or placement in juvenile detention.

Mackey intends to achieve this, in part, by applying the principles of social and emotional learning. In 2018, the California Department of Education introduced a framework for educators to teach critical life skills such as empathy, responsible decision-making, stress management, and positive relationship-building. Using these guidelines, Mackey is eager to help every student in the county develop into a well-rounded member of society.

“We recently hired a social and emo­tional learning coordinator to work with the districts, especially those with high rates of suspensions and students involved in our court schools,” Mackey says. “But mental health and social and emotional learning are topics that cut across all school districts and all socioeconomic and achievement levels. It doesn’t matter whether they’re the highest-performing districts or the lowest-performing districts.”

Technology is another issue that crosses communities. Mackey was asked about this repeatedly while campaigning and notes, “Parents are concerned about distraction and addiction to technology. While we need to prepare students for the 21st century, technology can’t be a replacement for a good teacher in the classroom.”

Mackey’s office has worked with Common Sense Media, a San Francisco nonprofit that studies and makes recommendations for children’s use of technology and media. She is also interested in training teachers, principals, and parents on the productive use of technology and educating students about digital citizenship.

“Digital citizenship involves making sure students know that what they put out and take in [online] is permanent,” Mackey explains. “It’s learning about bullying, but also about being discerning,”


Facing Up to Fiscal Reality

Accomplishing everything she envisions will present challenges. The biggest will be how to pay for it.

“As a state and a county, we have all these great plans—for early learning, career and technical education, and more. But the state of [California’s] schools … is that we’re all struggling financially,” Mackey says.

She aims to assist Contra Costa school district superintendents in tackling the budget squeeze. Her office has a team of advisors available for fiscal-planning guidance. Mackey is also ready to help districts respond to new state initiatives and federal goals intended to strengthen student achievement and engagement, and improve the public school climate.

“We have amazing district superintendents, and we see our role as meeting them where they are in a way that doesn’t add layers of bureaucracy,” she explains. “Our office is going to provide support in an effective and efficient manner. The more we do this, the more money can go into the districts and our programs.”


Working Toward Success

By the time her four-year term ends, Mackey hopes to have developed strong partnerships with the school districts. She looks forward to seeing a thriving but smaller court schools program and successful social and emotional learning initiatives. And she wants to have led the expansion of community collaborations focused on children.

Mackey is optimistic she can make this happen. “My personal and professional history will contribute to my success,” she says, “as will working with great people and developing relationships.”

Then there are the intangibles. Asked what other attributes will help her in her superintendent role, Mackey responds: “Open-mindedness, honesty, and a willingness to be a public servant to the districts and students. That is really who I am.” 


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