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ALBERTA ROUTES: THE ROADS WE’VE TRAVELLED
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. (Frost)
As a prairie province, Alberta has always relied on a robust workforce for industries and businesses in the rural areas. And historically, these areas have often had fewer educational opportunities than their urban counterparts. It is this gap in resources that the leading community colleges of NorQuest College and Bow Valley College have sought to address as part of their commitment to regional stewardship. From this impetus was Rural Routes born.
It began circa 2001 with workshops in English for the Workplace (EWP) in collaboration with AWES (Alberta Workplace Essential Skills). These efforts were spearheaded by leading ESL practitioners Lorene Anderson and Dawn Seabrook de Vargas, among others. In particular, Lorene remembers that at that time, much of the work focused on Brooks, Alberta which saw an influx of immigrants when a meat processing plant recruited a large number of workers from outside of Canada. So there was a sudden need for large scale in-house English language training. Keenly aware of the implications for economic growth, the Government of Alberta provided funding for these opportunities in order to encourage immigrant families to stay in these communities.
In 2002, the Rural Routes Initiative was formally launched as more communities needed support with providing ESL training for newcomers through the existing Community Adult Learning Councils (CALC) who had not previously offered English language programs. Workshops were taken on the road in order for CALC volunteer tutors and instructors to learn about topics such as the Canadian Language Benchmarks (CLB) and to get advice on teaching tips, lesson planning, particularly to address ESL literacy learners, a concept which was new to many communities at that time. As always, the intent was to fill a gap in learning opportunities for rural Albertans to support their education and career goals.
Support from the community colleges and the provincial government through Alberta Employment and Immigration remained strong. College Deans Anna de Luca (NorQuest College) and Mary Davison (Bow Valley) poured their faculties’ resources into Rural Routes. In 2003, ERPAC was published, a first-of-its-kind ESL Resource Package for Alberta Communities. Other resources followed over the years – A Needs Assessment Tool for ESL Programming, Common Ground: English in the Workplace (A How-To Guide for Employers), and a Roots and Connections curriculum (a culturally integrated ESL curriculum for community orientation in Alberta) among others. These resources aimed to support both employers and community program coordinators. In later years, Sara Gnida and Justine Light, among others, were contracted to create additional workshops.
Regional advisors continued to be the Rural Routes program’s “eyes on the ground,” gathering information and feedback on the needs of the CALCs. Sue Oguchi, an advisor from 2011-2015, remembers working with at least five other advisors, supporting volunteer tutor and instructors with workshops as well as advising the Colleges on the resources that needed to be developed.
Rural Routes embraced the role of the regional outreach arm of some of Alberta’s larger post-secondary institutions, working behind the scenes, travelling the less-travelled roads, sharing a wide range of expertise from the basics of how to start an ESL program, how to teach reading, writing, listening, speaking, or lesson planning made easy to other areas such as the Canadian Language Benchmarks, teaching ESL literacy learners, and test preparation. In the following years, other workshop creators expanded the roster to cover intercultural education topics such as parenting in two cultures, promoting Indigenous awareness, and intercultural competence. The pandemic of 2020 then pivoted all these to online delivery and the creation of relevant workshops to support instructors new to online teaching. Under the leadership of its able program managers across the years -- Barb Hudkins, Dorte Weber, and now Alana Johnson -- Rural Routes made these professional development topics freely available to EAL instructors and tutors, providing them with easily accessible tools to build their capacity and confidence in teaching adult learners.
But the true gift of this regional outreach has been found in the relationships with like-minded individuals with a shared mission of providing access to resources where and when they are most needed and for those who may be easily overlooked in our communities. In this way, we believe we are changing lives for the better.
In 2022, responding to a recommendation from Advanced Education, the Rural Routes team embarked on a months-long process of finding a new name, one that better reflects the scope of the program’s reach and practice, especially since these programs had gone beyond ‘rural’ and ‘ESL’. We listened to our partners in the Community Learning Network, tossed ideas around amongst ourselves, consulted with other colleagues at NorQuest College. At long last, we can spread the word:
We are proudly Alberta Routes: Building Capacity in Community Educators.
The name captures who we are (and have been all these 20 years) and what we do. More importantly, it expresses our ongoing commitment to supporting learning programs across the province that, in turn, support adult learners in their communities.
Small but mighty.
Today, a team of just three advisors supports province-wide adult learning initiatives, mainly serving but not limited to newcomers to Canada. Alana Johnson is our Program Lead and advisor for Region 4 (South); Lia dela Cruz is advisor for Region 3 (Central); and Selestia Herrera-Ganton is advisor for Regions 1 & 2 (North-West-East). Alberta Routes is also served by Phil Switzer who supports CALPs on all things GED and Numeracy.
We continue to forge ahead, strengthening our existing resources and growing our program offerings by listening and responding to emerging needs in the province, especially those resulting from cultural shifts with immigration waves. Our work takes us down roads that may be little known and less traveled, but it is here where we gladly and gratefully make the most difference.