Sam Marks: Planting the Seeds for Breakthrough New York

Sam Marks has much to beproud of. He watched as the seeds of an idea have grown into a multi-million dollar program that leads students along the path to worlds of success.

Mr. Marks is the founder of Breakthrough New York, what initially was called Summerbridge at The Town School when he started to build its foundation in 1999. More than 14 years later, he is poised to be honored by Breakthrough New York at its annual gala on April 18th at Capitale.

“I was a Summerbridge teacher in Providence, RI, when I was in college in the summers of 1992, ’93 and ’94,” Mr. Marks said. “When I graduated in 1994, I landed a job at The Town School teaching sixth-grade English and Social Studies, and as a homeroom teacher.”

But, he said, his entrance into the classroom paved the way for stronger ambitions. “What I wanted to do was direct; I wanted to found a Summerbridge program in my home town,” he said.

A native of the Upper East Side who now lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Mr. Marks collaborated with Joyce Evans, then the head of The Town School, endeavoring to launch a local Summerbridge program.

“We both had this idea in the back of our minds that we could get a Summerbridge program up and running. It took us three or four years to line everything up. We worked with The Town School’s board, and Summerbridge National to establish the program and ensure that there would be local support so it could thrive,” he said.

Mr. Marks launched and then ran the program - which was soon renamed Breakthrough New York - from 1998 to 2002, when he left to attend graduate school at the Harvard Kennedy School, earning a Masters in Public Policy and Urban Planning.

Following graduate school, Marks continues to work in the same communities in New York City from where Breakthrough students are recruited. He subsequently joined the Bronx-based nonprofit organization WHEDco as its Director of Housing and Community Development.

He currently is the Vice President at Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation, where he manages the group's $5 million community development grants budget, and works with its Community Development Finance Group to manage its $500 million portfolio of loans and investments in affordable housing and economic development throughout New York City and at times the U.S. and internationally as well.

To this day, he reflects fondly on the early days of Breakthrough New York, and its remarkable growth and impact on students from across New York City.

“I had an amazing life-changing and growing experience as a teacher at Summerbridge,” he said. “I was entrusted with all of this responsibility of teaching a classroom of kids, and not just to teach but to help run this program.”

“It was designed so they could throw themselves into it with all of their passion and 110 percent of their energy, and put all of that to work to really build something,” he said.

And, he said, his enthusiasm was driven by the ability to learn and grow along the way. “It was about both engaging with kids and learning how to teach, learning how to inspire young people. Also, it was like building the track as you were riding the train down it.”

Mr. Marks recalls the “incredible experience” of developing the program at The Town School, and considering not just the experiences that students had in the classroom but in the larger world beyond it. Many of the participating students aspired to go to college, but they and their families needed guidance and support to understand what they needed to get there.

From its origins, his program attracted “really young, talented people who had limited opportunities.” Today, when he encounters some of its graduates, he is incredibly moved by their stories of success.

“It’s always really amazing to see where folks wound up,” Mr. Marks said, “and how their experience of being part of a program has been a touchstone to them in their lives. We really created a culture with the program where everybody was working incredibly hard and finding a lot of joy in the process of learning, a community where learning and achievement were really valued and celebrated, and that it was cool to be smart and engaged and enthusiastic.”

“We wanted to create a sort of oasis of that positive culture, and it seems to have been an experience that people really carried through their lives,” he said.

Breakthrough New York owes its success to the seeds planted by Mr. Marks, and recently announced the honor he will receive in a few weeks.

“It’s amazing to think how much the program has grown under subsequent leadership such as Rhea’s. There is just an enormous breadth of stakeholders that believe in and support the organization now.”

“The program has grown in size and impact, and has really become a leading organization in the kind of work it does, which has been really amazing to see from its humble origins.”

He reflected on his first office – a reconstituted gymnasium closet – and how now Breakthrough has grown into a much more formalized organization to implement its mission and chart a better future for its students.

“It was me in a gym closet with an idea in my head,” he said. “and now it’s a million dollar budget organization that has a track record that can look back and honor its founder from 14 years ago, and that is pretty amazing.