Brownsville students root for Nittany Lions at MSG after successful fundraiser

At the top of section 102 in Madison Square Garden, behind the basket, there was laughter and cheering and excitement before the Penn State men’s basketball team took on Michigan on Saturday.

The Nittany Lions fans in these seats were students from Brownsville Ascend Lower School in Brooklyn. Some spotted the Nittany Lion mascot and cheerleaders, while their teacher and Penn State graduate Dan Guthrie took a group of students to greet the players with high-fives on their way to the court. They wore white shirts with “We Are” written across the front, a reference to one of the cheers Guthrie taught them.

Guthrie, a first-grade teacher, raised the money to bring his students to the game through GoFundMe. He set an original goal of $1,500 that was met within 10-20 hours of the page’s creation on Jan. 17. He was soon contacted by Penn State assistant coach Dwayne Anderson and administrators expressing their support for his goal to add to his students’ interest in the college dream while giving them an opportunity they wouldn’t normally get by taking them to the game. He changed the goal to $4,000, and that was met in three days. The page raised $5,245, and Guthrie said Saturday that there is more than $1,000 left that he plans to put to use for his students.

“The pie in the sky goal is the trip to Penn State,” Guthrie said.

He said there are other options to consider as well.

But Saturday was about introducing his students to Penn State basketball and the World’s Most Famous Arena.

Guthrie’s idea started small. With another teacher, he planned to take three students from his class this year and three students from last year’s class. But ticket prices were largely in the $50-60 range, meaning it would be expensive even for a small group to go. After talking to a friend and fellow Penn State graduate when he was in Philadelphia for Martin Luther King Day weekend, Guthrie’s plan changed.

The friend suggested starting a GoFundMe fundraising page, telling Guthrie that Penn State alumni would love to support the cause. So Guthrie set up the page with information about his class in the “low-income” school in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. He wrote about the Penn State theme of his classroom — each class has a college theme — and gave examples of the interest students have shown in the university as a result. He wrote that he strives to inspire students to pursue a college career.

And that’s not the norm in Brownsville.

According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s “Community Health Profiles 2015” of Brownsville, 18 percent of adults 25 years and older have college degrees. Twenty-eight percent haven’t finished high school.

Brownsville Ascend Lower School aims to develop its students’ interest in college at a young age by associating each classroom with a specific college.

“It’s a way to get that college mindset into kids where college, when they get to high school isn’t a new thing to them,” Guthrie said earlier this week.

Guthrie’s classroom is Penn State, from which he graduated in 2010.

It’s filled with Penn State memorabilia. He has hats, pennants, posters and his graduation cap in the room. He has Penn State T-shirts that a “student of the day” gets to wear as recognition for outstanding work. And the basketball program is well represented from giveaways Guthrie received by going to games over the years.

There’s a mini Penn State basketball hoop. There are Geary Claxton and Ben Luber bobbleheads. There’s an Andrew Jones growth poster, featuring a life-sized picture of the 6-foot-10 Jones that the students use to measure themselves.

There’s also a poster celebrating Penn State’s 2009 NIT title — Guthrie can pick himself out in the crowd in the picture. He remembers the crowd playing a factor that night as Penn State fans packed the Garden for the Nittany Lions’ win over Baylor.

“It was shaking,” said Guthrie, who was a member of Nittany Nation and went on any bus trip offered to watch the team play during his time as a student.

The NIT poster hangs in the back of the classroom by the door, and Guthrie said his students ask about it often.

He pointed it out when he gathered 60 students in his classroom last Thursday to tell them they’d get to go to the Penn State-Michigan game at Madison Square Garden. It was an amazing experience for him to see Penn State play there seven years ago, he told them before asking “How many of you would like to go to a Penn State basketball game at Madison Square Garden?”

Every hand shot up.

On Saturday, about 50 students took the subway to the game.

“The entire car turned into a pep rally,” Guthrie said. “They were ‘We Are-ing’ on the car, singing Hail to the Lion. I think all the extra people (in the subway car) were a little confused why every single 6-year-old knew these songs.”

At the game, they sat 12 rows behind the Penn State student section, rebranded as the Legion of Blue this season. Groups of Guthrie’s students formed lines before the first half and before the second half to high-five the Penn State players as they took the court.

It was second-grader Hope Bastien’s favorite part of the day.

“They high-fived us,” she said, “and we just felt happy.”

Tim Burroughs, a fourth-grade teacher at the school and Michigan alum, said he could see the excitement on the kids’ faces throughout the day.

They were enjoying the special trip organized by Guthrie.

Burroughs was impressed by the outpouring of support for the students from the poor neighborhood.

“It’s really exciting,” Burroughs said. “It’s showing that people do think that this kind of work is important and these kids should get to have these fun opportunities that a lot of us were privileged enough to have when we were growing up.”

Much of the support came from the Penn State community.

Guthrie was appreciative of that generosity.

“That’s truly one of the best things about Penn State, I think, is the alumni network loves their school,” Guthrie said. “And they want to make sure everyone loves it as much as them.”

And he’s fostering that passion as he hopes to inspire the next generation of college students.

Ryne Gery: 814-231-4679, @rgery