PORTLAND — Eat healthy, exercise and read, read, read.

City officials and educators delivered that message Friday to East End Community School students on their last day of classes, as Portland kicked off an expanded slate of summer programming designed to combat “summer slide.”

“If students don’t practice reading between June and September, their reading level can slide back. It’s just like any skill,” said Karen MacDonald, an English teacher at King Middle School and Maine’s 2014 Teacher of the Year. “So we’re trying to instill a love of reading. We’re trying to make reading fun and give kids choices about what they read, and connect it with other activities.”

Mayor Michael Brennan, Superintendent of Schools Emmanuel Caulk and MacDonald on Friday morning led East End elementary school students in a pledge for summer success that included promises to eat healthy foods, exercise, engage in the arts, explore the city, get and use a library card, and read. Thousands of students across Portland have taken similar pledges in recent weeks.

The city expects a record 750 students to take advantage of summer learning opportunities in 2014, including free lunch programs designed to fight food insecurity at 16 schools, playgrounds and community centers across Portland. Several of those sites are open every day for lunch between now and Aug. 27 (except July 4), and Portland High School and Ocean Avenue Elementary School also offer free breakfast. New meal sites include the Portland Public Library and Peppermint Park.

Summer meal service sites will feature outdoor activities and visits from the library’s bookmobile, while Portland Public Library will also serve as a hub for summer education, offering a variety of reading-centric programming.

Caulk said that by sending students home with reading lists (and in some instances, actual books), the School Department is helping to combat the lure of TV and video games and fend off summer slide, which disproportionately affects low-income children.

He said he hopes a series of activities scheduled for later in the season – picnics on July 24 in Deering Oaks Park, on July 25 at Peppermint Park, and on Aug. 9 at Parkside Community Center – will help students maintain the commitment to education they made in their pledges.

“We found (last year) that 90 percent of students across the district involved in summer learning, grades K-12, maintained or increased their reading level,” Caulk said. “Students came back to school in the fall and were ready to learn. That’s important because we know if we can get our students reading at or above reading level by the end of third grade, then the sky is the limit.

“We want reading to be a family activity, a family event, that you can do anywhere,” the superintendent said. “Whether you’re at home, the beach, or the park, there’s an opportunity to read.”

Brendan Twist can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter:@brendantwist.

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