By Andy Piascik
This Fall marks 50 years since the establishment of Housatonic Community College. The school has come a long way in that time, from facilities scattered throughout Stratford to an old industrial building on Bridgeport’s East Side to a lovely downtown campus. More importantly, enrollment has grown from 378 in the very first semester to almost 6,000 students and is likely to grow larger with new facilities and a continued commitment from the state of Connecticut.
Housatonic’s origins can be traced to the dramatic increase in the need for higher education in the early 1960s. The empire of the United States was at its apex and there was a great demand for a better-educated workforce to fill the many professional and technical jobs of an expanding economy. As the first of the baby boom generation reached college age, new universities were constructed, state college systems expanded and many community colleges were established.
Despite its small-ish population, Connecticut was very much in the forefront of this development and nowhere was this more apparent than in the growth of the state’s community college system. Nine community colleges opened in Connecticut during the 1960’s, including Housatonic, and a tenth opened in 1971. The state’s community college system today includes twelve schools with a total enrollment of about 90,000 students.
Housatonic was originally established in 1966 as a branch of Norwalk Community College. The school’s offices were located in Stratford and classes were held throughout that city including at Bunnell High School, the Stratford United Methodist Church and the Stratford Public Library. Tuition that first year was $50 for a state resident attending full time, with additional fees ranging from $25 to $45.
Housatonic became an independent school the following year and one of the institutions it’s best known for, the Housatonic Museum of Art, opened. The driving force behind the museum was Burt Chernow, an art professor at the school, and the first exhibit in 1968 featured works from the museum’s collection by Elaine de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, Andy Warhol and many others.
Over the years the museum’s collection has grown as artists and collectors donated and bequeathed works and the permanent collection includes works by Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall Henri Matisse and other masters. After Chernow’s death in 1997, the museum’s collection has been maintained by Director Robbin Zella and continues to grow.
With a growing enrollment and the need for more space, HCC moved into the Singer Sewing Machine factory on Barnum Avenue in 1971. Located several blocks east of Washington Park and just north of the New York-New Haven railroad viaduct, the Singer plant had been a fixture on the city’s East Side for decades. The company began phasing out production at its sprawling factory in 1965 and Housatonic moved in after the company closed up shop for good for what was said at the time was to be a temporary stay.
Housatonic’s enrollment continued to grow steadily in the years following the move. It was especially important that such a school be located in Bridgeport, where there were many young people for whom the costs of a four-year college were out of reach. A majority of the students came from working class families and the school, like Bridgeport, was ethnically diverse.
From the outset Housatonic also featured many students who were older than standard college age seeking training that would better position them to get professional or civil service employment. Many students worked full-time and classes were scheduled days and evenings to accommodate busy schedules. We can imagine any number whose parents or relatives had worked in the very same building during Singer’s heyday, and perhaps more than a few who had worked there themselves.
In addition to the art museum, HCC regularly features films, forums and lectures that are open to the public. The school also makes meeting space available to local community organizations. And for a while in the 1970’s, HCC fielded very competitive men’s basketball and baseball and women’s softball teams that featured many standout players from area high schools.
By the 1990s Housatonic was bursting at the seams and functioning in a space that was outmoded. In 1994, the state of Connecticut purchased property at State Street and Lafayette Boulevard which for several decades been home to the Hi-Ho Mall (originally the Lafayette Shopping Mall) for a new HCC. Re-configuration of the building was completed during the 1996-97 school year and students returned to class after winter break for the beginning of the Spring Semester in the new facilities on January 27, 1997. So in addition to marking the 50th anniversary of the origins of the school this Fall, the Housatonic community is preparing to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the move to its current location.
With the opening of the new campus, the Burt Chernow Galleries of the Housatonic Museum of Art opened and had for its first exhibit a collection of photographs by Ansel Adams. The new college building, known as Lafayette Hall, also features expanded classroom space and a spacious library. With enrollment still growing, the state took control of the empty Sears building just to the south of the school and restructured it into a second building, Beacon Hall, that opened in September of 2008. At the center of the campus is a large green where students gather and study during warm weather.
As it enters its sixth decade, Housatonic offers Associate Degrees in 42 programs of study, ranging from Graphic Design to Paramedic Studies to Theater Arts. The school also offers credit certificate programs such as Early Childhood Education and Advanced Manufacturing Machine Technology. Also available are a wide variety of Continuing Education courses for those seeking new job market skills or knowledge enhancement.
There are, of course, challenges and difficulties for Housatonic and its students. Despite a demonstrated need, schools like HCC face regular attacks from those who object to public education and seek to reduce and even eliminate valuable social institutions. Tuition and school fees for a Connecticut resident for two semesters at Housatonic total $4,188 while part-time enrollment costs $155 per credit. At the University of Connecticut, by contrast, in-state tuition and fees for two semesters total $13,366 at the Storrs campus and $11,324 at the regional sites. State budget cuts like those of recent years, however, imperil Housatonic’s affordability.
In recent years, Housatonic and the Connecticut State Universities have established a partnership so that HCC students who achieve a grade point average of 3.0 or higher and an associate’s degree in certain programs are guaranteed admission to the Universities and have equal access in the selection of majors. That ensures fluidity for HCC graduates who seek a bachelor’s degree while making it easier for them to do so in-state. It’s also an important move to strengthen public education at a time when there is ongoing hostility to the very nature of a public sector. With continued popular diligence and a collective progressive vision, people from throughout the Bridgeport area will continue to have access to quality, affordable education at Housatonic.
Thanks to Housatonic Community College’s Public Relations Associate Esther Watstein for her assistance