Melissa Bassanelli takes over as new San Juan superintendent


New Superintendent Marina Bassanelli.

After 25 years in the district, Melissa Bassanelli is finally on top. She was named the new superintendent of San Juan Unified School District in January.

The beginning of Bassanelli’s career saw her working as a classified employee at Mira Loma, conducting support groups and referral services for students with various issues. 

After transferring to the district office, she wrote the first grant for the Bridges after-school program.

“This was probably more than 15 years ago,” Bassanelli said. “That program continues, so that’s something I’m pretty proud of that we were able to sustain.”

Bassanelli then served as the vice principal of Kingswood Elementary, and then as the principal of Thomas Kelly Elementary.

“All of the positions I’ve had in San Juan have helped prepare me to lead in San Juan,” Bassanelli said, “particularly in terms of being connected with what our students, community, and staff say.”

Bassanelli’s most recent position was Deputy Superintendent, Schools and Student Support.

“It was very specific towards teaching and learning with our schools and programs that support students,” Bassanelli said.

However, being superintendent is a much more all-encompassing commitment.

“This job is so much bigger than any other job I’ve had,” Bassanelli said. “It includes all of our business and operations, so things that we don’t necessarily think about, such as budget, finance, nutrition, transportation– all that stuff.”

Over her quarter-century in service, Bassanelli has seen the district evolve.

“The district has definitely changed in terms of its demographics,” Bassanelli said.

She cited the increased diversity of the student body population and the growth in the number of students with disabilities and English language learners.

“All of this adds a lot of value and richness and depth to our community, and it also requires us to continuously change and pivot and grow,” Bassanelli said.

With so many changes in the district, Bassanelli said that one of her goals was maintaining continuity in the system. Along with this goal, she will have to wrestle with several contentious issues in the district, including dual enrollment, which, though popular among students, has caused some teachers to raise concerns.

“Dual enrollment is an investment that we want to continue to make,” Bassanelli said. “It’s a shared interest that we can continue it.”

Bassanelli sees potential for improving the program so that it better meets the needs of universities, teachers associations, and especially students. She envisions a future where students are earning college credit while attending high school.

“How amazing would that be for our students where you’re almost able to accelerate your pathway and take courses ahead of time,” Bassanelli said.

Another particularly pressing issue at Rio is the high rate at which students fail math classes. Bassanelli said that the district is working on it.

“Tutoring is a big piece that we’ve been intensifying at Rio,” she said. “A new piece that they started specifically at Rio was providing opportunities to prepare parents, and how you can help your student at home.”

These programs are just the beginning of what Bassanelli is doing. Future plans include focusing on more professional development for teachers and making additional math supports available to students both during school and after hours.

Recently, San Juan has also seen a surge in the population of students who are English language learners, many of whom feel disconnected from their classmates.

“Welcoming environments where students feel like they can belong is a priority,” Bassanelli said. “Our policy is… identifying what are the needs of students and how do we build those safe and welcoming environments. That particularly relates to our most marginalized students, which can include our English language learners.”

She said that, while it is a district priority, each school has to tackle the problem based on their own students and experiences, and implement solutions at a more local level.

“Many of our schools have adopted equity teams, and that can be a strategy to help build those welcoming environments,” Bassanelli said. “Many of our high schools have link crews that help link the upper grades to the incoming freshman.”

She said that the district will continue to provide assistance for teachers to be able to support these students, in addition to supplementary teachers who focus specifically on English language development.

Although surmounting these issues will not be easy, Bassanelli is prepared to confront them with her greatest strength.

“I am a listener,” she said. Asking questions helps her understand others’ lives and the problems they are experiencing. 

“I can have all the ideas in the world, but they don’t mean a hill of beans if it’s disconnected from what people are saying.”