Six women from different backgrounds met throughout July at Messalonskee Middle School in Oakland with one goal in mind: to finish the clinical component required to be certified as a literacy specialist in Maine.

Those who were already classroom teachers taught at Title I schools, which means they have a high percentage of children from low-income families. In Maine, 87.6 percent of students are enrolled in Title I schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The teachers, such as Jenna Zemrak, 31, who teaches fourth grade at Belgrade Central School, plan to take what they learned back to their schools.

Others, such as Jenn Veilleux, 40, plan to use the new skills to start a new career. Veilleux, who was previously a classroom teacher, is starting a job soon as a literacy interventionist in Augusta at Lincoln Elementary School.

All six see the value in learning how to work through different literacy problems, as well as devising strategies to get kids hooked on reading.

“It’s everything,” Veilleux said at the middle school on their last day of the clinical, Thursday. “It impacts every other area.”

The NCES provides data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is also known as the “nation’s report card.” According to Maine’s profile, its average reading score results for fourth-graders haven’t changed much since 1998.

In 2015, 29 percent of fourth-graders in Maine had below basic reading score results, up one point from 1998. Nationally, 32 percent of fourth-graders had below basic reading score results.

The one-month program is part of Thomas College’s master’s program for literacy education; however, participants can enroll in the clinical even if not in the master’s program. This is the first year of the clinical component, which is replacing the more research-based capstone course. The clinical is a hands-on class where the students work with students who need help with reading or writing, as well as reflect on different teaching methods and read research-backed texts.

Regional School Unit 18 partnered with Thomas College and let the participants use the space at the middle school, where they were able to work with children from kindergarten to fifth grade who are in summer school. Each of the women worked with four children and spent half an hour with them one-on-one every day. A large part of the work is diagnosing which part of reading or writing a child has trouble with.

Michelle Harrington, 47, worked with a kindergarten student who didn’t understand that individual letters made up words. Harrington is a certified reading recovery and Title I teacher at Chelsea Elementary School in Regional School Unit 12.

“I felt that a literacy master’s was more … meaningful for myself,” she said, explaining that she works with children who often struggle, so this program would give her more skills to help them with.

Working one-on-one with the children was a departure from the norm for most of the students, who teach in classrooms where there isn’t enough time to give that individual attention.

“It’s exciting,” said Kathy Burkhart, 49, who teaches fifth grade at Benton Elementary School. “And overwhelming, but exciting.”

Burkhart is in the master’s program at Thomas College and expects to graduate next May.

“I’m excited as a classroom teacher to be able to use these strategies and the framework in the classroom,” Burkhart said. It’s especially important, she said, because Response to Intervention is mandatory now in Maine, so teachers have to be more aware of students at risk of failure.

The individual work time is a better learning environment for children who may have trouble with reading — or writing, too — the students said.

“One-on-one lends itself so that you can be very responsive to what they (the children) do,” said Amanda Pingree, 33, who completed her master’s at Walden University and plans to work as a literacy coach and interventionist at Union Elementary School.

It gives the teacher a better opportunity to engage the child with reading as well, Burkhart said. “When they become engaged in their reading, they get stronger.”

After the students worked with the children, they would have time to reflect both by themselves and with their peers about how well the strategies they chose worked and what they could do the next time.

“Reflecting … makes for more prepared teachers who can give more precise instructions to students,” said Todd Martin, an adjunct at Thomas College who taught the clinical and also teaches four other courses in the program throughout the year. The students also sometimes videotaped themselves, and Martin challenged them to continue doing that when they go back to work.

“It gives you the opportunity to practice new learning and reflect on it at a time when you’re not busy with the day-to-day,” Veilleux said.

Zemrak and Jill MacKenzie, 43, a first-grade teacher at Belgrade Central School, will be the first graduates of the Thomas College program since the clinical component was added. The program requires 36 credits for completion. The state requires an additional assessment for certification as a literacy specialist.

The women said they were excited that the area now has a local program for those who are interested in learning more about teaching literacy.

“I think as teachers we need to model for students what we want them to do, which is continuously grow,” Veilleux said.

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

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Twitter: @madelinestamour