#teacher | N.J. teacher who worked with Elizabeth Warren says the school culture didn’t support pregnant women

Sharon Ercolano was a second-year teacher in Riverdale when Elizabeth Warren, the future U.S. senator and Democratic presidential candidate, was hired as a part-time speech pathologist in the same public school district.

The retired educator said she doesn’t remember Warren, and could not speak directly to the issue of Warren saying she lost her job in 1971 because she was pregnant, although she noted that pregnant teachers were often vulnerable.

“It was part of the culture,” she said.

“You pretty much knew that if you were pregnant, and you didn’t have tenure, you didn’t have job security,” she said.

Ercolano vividly recalls, around that time, herself getting summoned to the principal’s office for violating another unwritten, yet gender-specific, rule.

She and another teacher wore pants to school one day, at a time when all of the women were expected to wear either a dress or a skirt.

“There was nothing that said anything about a dress code, but it was pretty much understood,” Ercolano told NJ Advance Media at her home in Vernon on Wednesday.

The principal was a man, as were all other school administrators in Riverdale – and in many other places – at that time.

Ercolano recalled him saying he was “disappointed” in her, but he took no action.

Similarly, there was no written policy spelling out that a pregnant teacher lacking tenure could be fired or pushed out of a job.

Ercolano, though, said that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

It was not until 1978 that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, who prohibits women from being discriminated against because they are pregnant, became federal law.

Warren’s account of her time in Riverdale has been a long-running campaign narrative, with the senator telling audiences that the school’s principal “showed her the door” when she was six months pregnant at the end of her first year.

Earlier this week, after a conservative news organization obtained documents showing the Riverdale school board accepted her resignation in the summer of 1971, Warren stood by her account in a CBS News interview.

Warren then posted a video on her Twitter account of her reading comments from women who said they lost their jobs when they revealed their pregnancies.

Ercolano remains in contact with another retired teacher from that time, Trudy Randall, who also lives in Vernon.

Randall could not be reached Wednesday, but told CBS News that in those days, “The rule was at five months you had to leave when you were pregnant.”

“Now, if you didn’t tell anybody you were pregnant, and they didn’t know, you could fudge it and try to stay on a little bit longer. But they kind of wanted you out if you were pregnant,” Randall told CBS.

Ercolano was living in Woodland Park, then known as West Paterson, when she was hired starting in September 1969 to teach language arts and social studies to 5th and 6th graders at the Riverdale Public School. It remains the only school in the K-8 district.

Warren was hired the following school year.

Ercolano said she must have interacted with Warren, but doesn’t remember her.

When Warren was running in 2012 for her U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts, bringing her to national attention, another former teacher in Riverdale realized the connection.

“She put out an email to all of us, asking, did you know her,” Ercolano recalled.

“None of us, that are still alive, did,” added Ercolano, though she thought Warren looked familiar.

Ercolano, who retired in 1999, never faced any issues of her own on the job due to pregnancy. She and her husband, Charles, were married two months before she started teaching but their their first and only child, also named Charles, was born in 1987.

“It was by choice. I was enjoying my career,” she said.

Reflecting on her long-ago decision to violate the unwritten dress code, Ercolano said lightly that it was “stupid,” since she lacked tenure.

The principal, while annoyed, agreed to a compromise. He would not object if the female teachers began wearing pant suits, or any outfit with coordinated tops and bottoms, she said.

“That opened the door – for not only us,” she said.

Asked about the presidential race, Ercolano said she is undecided.

“I support Democrats, but I haven’t made up my mind yet. I’m a little more on the moderate side,” she said.

Still, Ercolano – who worked in the same building as Warren so long ago – isn’t about to second-guess her.

“We’re talking almost 50 years ago,” she said.

Rob Jennings may be reached at rjennings@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @RobJenningsNJ. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

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