EVERY Wednesday evening for 11 weeks, Patricia McTyer followed an unvarying routine. Promptly at 6 p.m., she and her eight-year-old daughter, Ashanique Coates, arrived at Webster Elementary School, where Ashanique is a second-grader. While Ashanique joined 18 children in the main cafeteria for dinner and games, Ms. McTyer and eight other mothers gathered in the teachers' cafeteria for dinner and what McTyer calls "an evening to talk and relax." But this was no idle social hour. Behind the pleasant informality lay a serious purpose: helping inner-city parents become more involved in their children's lives and education. Sponsored by the Oakland Public Schools, the experimental Family Enrichment Program paid nine parents $100 each for completing the course, plus an additional $50 for achieving specific goals.
"The money was a way to get our attention," says McTyer . "But the program offered a lot. It really motivated me to get involved with my daughter's school. I also learned how to manage my time better. Instead of just sitting there watching TV, I can turn the TV off and go places and get things done."
This innovative effort comes at a time when schools and parents nationwide are searching for new ways to join forces in helping children. "Partnership" is a word both groups use more frequently to describe their relationship.
"It wasn't the $100 that drew them," says Willie Hamilton, principal. "You don't go someplace for 11 weeks for $100. Many parents were expressing a desire to do more for their children. People who felt they were having overwhelming problems had a chance to find out they weren't alone. Once parents began to come and to share, they felt a little better about how they were handling their children. These mothers also became friends. Now they can call on each other when they need to."
On a sunny spring afternoon, six mothers gathered in a faculty lounge at the school to talk about the program. They offered touching accounts of the challenges they face in raising children and instilling values in a neighborhood where elementary-school boys serve as drug runners and where concerns for their children's safety often shadow their lives.
"When my 19-year-old daughter was young, she always walked home from school with other children and I didn't feel scared," McTyer recalls. "But I don't dare let my 8-year-old walk home alone. I take her to school and I pick her up."
Beyond physical safety, these parents also struggle to shield their children from the temptations of a materialistic culture.
"There's so much for them to get into," says Gloriadean Jones-Cooper, a mother of nine children ranging in age from seven months to 24 years. "All the boys see is drugs, fast cars, nice clothes, easy money, and a scam on how to get things. And I see little girls with more lipstick than I wear."
O one blames the children for their vulner-ability.
"It's the world that's changed - it's not really the children," says Carolyn Scott, whose six children range in age from seven to 30. "There's been such a breakdown in family life. The family is no longer the center of interest. The school is not the center. The church is not living up to its role. The school, the church, and the community once formed a triangle, or a circle, that sort of protected our young."
For those whose own parents relied on corporal punishment, the rules on discipline have changed. As McTyer explains, "If you try to spank kids, they'll say, 'That's child abuse! Adds Gwendolyn Pullen, a child-care provider and the mother of two daughters, "Children know parents and teachers can't do anything to them."
Discipline is, of course, only part of responsible parenthood.
Equally essential are praise and love. Mrs. Scott emphasizes the importance of "setting high expectations, and then giving rewards when they meet your expectations." Jones-Cooper, an employee at the Veteran's Administration hospital whose day begins at 5 a.m., offers another approach: "Sometimes when I'm packing lunches I put a little note in, saying, 'I love you.
Gestures like these, the mothers say, help them strengthen family bonds and instill values that transcend the seductive consumerism constantly paraded before their children on TV.
"Sometimes I like to watch the Bill Cosby show," says Jones-Cooper, cuddling her 7-month-old son as he plays with her keys. "I think, 'That's the way life should be.' My daughter Lisa tells me, 'I wish we had a life like that, where you make a lotta, lotta money.' I say, 'That's not the way it is, baby.
NSTEAD, Jones-Cooper's children earn spending money by cutting grass, delivering telephone books, and painting the house. Tonight, she notes, her 10-year-old son will be wielding a paintbrush. "He needed $8, so I said, 'Go paint the bathroom.
Involvement: This is the big abstract word for a lot of small specific acts uniting parents and children.
And then there is the involvement that unites parents and teachers. Scott sometimes takes a personal leave day from her job as a librarian to "wander around" her 16-year-old son's school, even sitting in on choir practice. "It's not because there's trouble," she explains. "I always go before I'm concerned." Mr. Hamilton sees evidence that this kind of interest is spreading as a result of the enrichment program. More parents are visiting the school and their children's classes. They are also volunteer ing in the cafeteria, in classrooms, and on the playground.
Hamilton observes a ripple effect. "Their interest in being involved is pulling other parents in," he says. "They become missionaries for the school."
So successful was the initial session that the program, which costs between $15,000 and $20,000, is being repeated this spring at Cox Elementary School in Oakland.
As if to sum up the philosophy of the program, McTyer says, "Our children need a lot of support from us. They have to know that we're right there for them. They just need some of our time, even if it's no more than 30 minutes an evening. We need to take time to sit down and see what's on their minds. We do need to get involved in our kids' lives and in what's going on at school."