The COVID-19 pandemic, economic crisis and systemic racial inequities in the workforce have changed the way people learn, work, communicate and live. Responding to the region’s workforce needs is critical for the survival of our communities. 

The Center for 21st Century Innovation and Workforce Development works to build and advance an interconnected 21st-century workforce development ecosystem that responds to the new reality of the COVID-19 digital landscape, systemic racial inequities, occupational segregation and displaced workers through stackable trainings, certificates, credentials and credits that articulate into career and college pathways. The pathways approach may prompt government, education and industry leaders to assess the condition of these pathways and work collectively to enable and strengthen them.

The Center for 21st Century Innovation and Workforce Development offers:

  • Credentials
  • Certificates
  • Apprenticeship programs
  • Innovative program delivery
  • Professional development
  • Trainings and workshop series
A man stands behind a woman at a computer screen in a workforce development class with other students around them.
College Students At Computers In Technology Class

Carlow University is committed to addressing the significant systems-building needs of the early childhood workforce through this transition to increased staff qualifications, increased focus on child outcomes, and increased needs of children and families experiencing trauma and challenges in their lives and communities. As state and national early learning systems increase standards around definitions of quality early learning, local early learning programs must have the resources, support, and structures in place to allow them to thrive in these new models. 

Carlow University’s early childhood apprenticeship vision builds upon the values and risk-taking, entrepreneurial spirit of our Founders, the Sisters of Mercy, by developing and implementing innovative apprenticeship programming and systems. Through the establishment of our region’s first four-year early childhood education apprenticeship program, The Dr. Rae Ann Hirsh Apprenticeship Hub for Early Childhood Education (The Apprenticeship Program) convenes community, regional, and national partners as stakeholders to help improve the quality of Pennsylvania’s early childhood system while demonstrating clear pathways to degree attainment and teacher practice improvement. 

High quality childcare plays a significant role in the healthy, social/emotional, and cognitive development of a child. High-quality preschool, with trained early childhood educators, prepares children for success in school and helps narrow racial, ethnic and income disparities. Children who had access to quality preschool have a better chance of graduating from high school and going to college. The research overwhelmingly suggests that investing early pays off later (Borkholder, 2021).  

The Dr. Rae Ann Hirsh Apprenticeship Hub for Early Childhood Education at Carlow University (The Apprenticeship Program) has completed a third year of programming following an initial planning year. The program was developed to build capacity within the early childhood education workforce. The program is open to early childhood educators in southwest Pennsylvania who are working at least 25 hours per week at a certified early childhood education program.  

The Apprenticeship Program aims to reduce workforce barriers to credential and degree attainment; by diversifying the early childcare workforce pipeline; by elevating the quality of childcare as evidenced through higher STARS ratings; by increasing higher quality caregiver interactions and targeted apprenticeship supports; and by elevating scores on environmental rating scales through strategically orchestrated efforts of key stakeholders.  

 The Apprenticeship Program is geared toward Early Childhood professionals who are working in early learning programs and interested in obtaining a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education with Pre-K-4 certification or in Early Development and Learning. 

Program Goals

Specifically, the Apprenticeship Program is designed to reduce barriers to credential and degree attainment, diversify the early childhood education workforce pipeline, increase the quality of teaching and caregiver interactions, and promote higher quality childcare and early education.

Program Supports

The Apprenticeship HUB provides intensive support for participants that includes course work that can be completed at the participant’s work site, is based on observations and the implementation of best practices in their classrooms.

Selected courses are offered online, which allows working educators the flexibility that is needed to balance work, school, and family. In person courses are available at three sites including Carlow’s main campus and satellite locations in Youngwood and Cranberry, being that the Apprenticeship Program has students who live and work in six counties in SW Pennsylvania.

Each apprenticeship student is assigned a Carlow University mentor with in-depth experience in early childhood education who meets regularly with program participants to offer support and help address any challenges. The students also have an on-site coach who is identified by the early learning program to support students taking on-the-job courses. These courses directly relate to work that early childhood educators are doing everyday in their early learning programs.

Course textbooks are provided to students through Carlow University’s lending library. Textbooks can cost anywhere from $15 – $200, so this support is critical to removing the barrier of fiscal need for students.

Prior to each semester, the Undergraduate Program Coordinator offers support in selecting and registering students for courses to be sure that they stay on track for degree completion.

The Apprenticeship Program Team works closely with the Financial Department to support in completing state and federal financial aid forms to be sure that they are completed in a timely manner. Over 65% of Apprenticeship Students receive PELL and PHEAA grants. When combined with the scholarships that are awarded to eligible student through the Early Childhood Education Professional Development Organization (ECEPDO) at Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), students attend and graduate with little to no cost for their degree. 

The Apprenticeship Program provides access to professional development opportunities such as conferences and webinars, where students can obtain Act 48 credit hours, which is also equivalent to Pennsylvania Quality Assurance System (PQAS) hours needed for the early childhood workforce in Pennsylvania.

Apprenticeship students are invited to engage in  activities including Carlow Future Educators, Kappa Delta Pi International Honor Society (juniors/seniors and graduates students with a 3.5 GPA or higher), Celebration of Teachers, and welcome events/year end celebrations. These types of activities promote community to students who are spread out over SW PA.

All students at Carlow University have direct student support available, including academic tutoring and counseling, grief counseling, mental health support, and many others. 

Apprenticeship students can easily transfer to Carlow University from regional community colleges or from a four-year institution to complete their undergraduate degree. The Apprenticeship Program and Carlow University also have matriculation agreements with community partners to assist students who have obtained a Child Development Associate (CDA) to transfer credits as well. 

How Do We Know this is Working?

The evaluation of The Apprenticeship Program uses an Implementation Science (IS) framework to monitor and provide consistent and reliable feedback to program stakeholders to ensure successful implementation of the program. The framework monitors implementation as it progresses through four discernible stages: exploration stage, installation stage, initial implementation stage, and the full implementation stage. It also identifies three necessary components of successful implementation: implementation teams that intentionally monitor and support implementation; quality and reliable data for feedback lops; and implementation infrastructure that includes the building blocks needed to support change at the practice, organizational, and systems levels. 

The IS framework uses both formative and summative program evaluation to promote the continuous quality improvement of a program. The formative aspect of an IS framework establishes targeted points in time during the implementation process to pause, assess, and to make changes as needed. This continuous quality improvement increases the likelihood that the programs will achieve the anticipated outcomes, which will be assessed via the summative evaluation aspect of the IS framework. The evaluation will systematically gather and analyze implementation data at all levels and use pre-determined metrics to assess the effectiveness of implementation. This data will be used by the data- driven feedback loops within and between the Implementation Team and program stakeholders to inform decisions about any necessary adjustments to the proposed activities, building or strengthening of necessary infrastructure, and to ensure continuous quality improvement. The summative evaluation component of the IS framework will explore the effects of the apprenticeship program on childcare quality, apprenticeship skill level, and the effectiveness of the apprenticeship model and the implementation of the Hub services and personnel positions. 

Carlow University is committed to enrolling a diverse body of students in the early learning apprenticeship program to support early learning educators teaching in programs serving the most vulnerable children. Enrolled participants represent the diversity necessary to ensure children have access to educators who are reflective of their race and community. In addition, the early learning apprenticeship program has enrolled a balance of men and women ensuring that children can develop strong and responsive relationships with both women and men. 

For more information on Scholarship Opportunities: 

The Early Childhood Education Professional Development Organization at PASSHE

 T.E.A.C.H. (Teacher Education And Compensation Helps) Early Childhood® Pennsylvania Scholarship Program

For more information the Dr. Rae Ann Hirsh Apprenticeship Hub for Early Childhood Education, please contact Sue Polojac M.Ed., Director at

In Memory: Dr. Rae Ann Hirsh, Professor of Education and Program Director for Early Childhood Education at Carlow University

Rae Ann Hirsh passed away on September 30th, 2022 surrounded by loved ones after a courageous battle with cancer. Rae was born on June 2nd, 1971 to parents Allen and Barbara Geary. She was the oldest of two siblings, Rachel and Allen Geary Jr., and a ringleader of many family antics and adventures. She leaves behind her husband of 29 years (Gary Hirsh), her two daughters (Tori and Gabi Hirsh), her dog (Princess), and many coveted cookie recipes. She doted on her niece and nephew (Nolan and Geni Geary) and she was happiest in the company of her family and friends. Rae was an educator, gardener, flutist, and baker. She would describe herself as a patient gardener; one who understood the individuality of each seed and their needs, giving them room to grow. She published a book about early childhood education in 2004 and worked as a professor to help influence and guide new teachers. There are now hundreds of passionate teachers using her methods and changing the lives of children through kindness and patience. Rae worked at Carlow University for 12 years and established Pennsylvania’s first four-year apprenticeship program which continues to run successfully with the help of her beloved coworkers and team. Her work will continue to improve people’s lives and access to early childhood education nationwide.


“I think that all of my courses so far and all of my teachers have put an emphasis on culturally inclusive classrooms and how to be able to do that effectively and without bias.”  

“Because it was affordable, and it worked well with my schedule as a full-time employee and a full-time single mom.” 

“Just being able to have a mentor to talk to if you ever have any problems. She’s extremely helpful, giving me what I need, the books, the funding, which is amazing, and she has helped me a lot. All members of the Apprenticeship Program have helped me.”

Highlights and benefits of the program include:

  • Two tracks: Early Development and Learning; Early Childhood Education with Pre-K Certification Preparation
  • Up to 24 credits for on-the-job learning
  • On-site and online courses one night a week at a Carlow location
  • Coaching by on-site coaches and mentorship by University supervisors 
  • Free access to a professional lending library of course materials, textbooks and digital media tools
  • Ability to borrow early childhood materials and resources
  • Free early childhood professional development required by Pennsylvania’s Office of Child Development and Early Learning (OCDEL)
  • Free tutoring and career and academic support services for support in coursework and preparation for required certification tests

The center’s success relies on innovative industry partnerships with Carlow’s academia. Some of our current partners include:

  • PASSHE ECE Professional Development Organization
  • Pittsburgh International Airport
  • Pennsylvania Department of Labor
  • MINNIM Software
  • UPMC
  • The Fred Rogers Center
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