I homeschooled for a while, and many of my close friends continue to homeschool. Now my kids go to pucblic school. So I feel I have a little insight on this...
I LOVE MY KIDS' SCHOOL!!! It is sooooo awesome! My kids have so much diversity in their classrooms; as white students my children are actually minorities. As children coming from a two parent home, they are minorities. I love it.
The public school that my kids go to is very aware of the fact that just because a bunch of kids are the same age doesn't mean that they are at the same level. In both my kindergartener's class and my 3rd grader's classs, they break into groups for reading. Groups of 3 in K, groups of 4 in 3rd. My dd in K is starting to read, while my dd in 3rd is learing how to facilitate group discussion. The teacher doesn't do it; each child in the group takes turns being the facilitator for the reading group. She has to come up with three discussion ideas that will help bring about a good discussion of the chapter they read, and has to discuss what she thinks the main idea of the chapter was, and how it fits into the book so far. It is great.
In K, there are obviously also many different levels of learning. Each child has "homework" where they have to do flash cards with their parents. There are two sets--literacy and math concepts. The literacy set started out at letter recognition, then went to sounds, then blends of sounds, and now word recognition. The math set started at number recognition, then went to counting by different sets (2s, 5s, 10,s, etc) and now we are on money. Each child has to go through each set twice getting everything right before they graduate to the next set. They get tested on it, individually, by either a volunteer, para, or the teacher, every day at school. My dd is whizzing through them, in part because she loves the idea of doing homework, like her big sister. I have volunteered before, and I know that some kids are still on basic number and letter recognition. Each child gets to work at their own pace, and every day the concepts, no matter where they are in the series, are reviewed in a positive, one-on-one manner.
There are tons of university students in the school, doing internships. My daughters' favorite is one of the university football players, who comes in and does reading. He is a big, tall, handsome, articulate black young man, and he is a wonderful role model. The children love him and just hang off of him (and he is strong enough to handle it!). It is great for the kids to see this black guy who is great in school (and thinks it is cool to do good in school), who is also good looking and a great athlete.
They also have a teacher/para who is a total punk, who has a mohawk that changes colors every week. There are many extra teachers; for example, a reading teacher that just helps in different classes. They have a full time school counselor who works with the kids on positive communication skills, on conflict resolution, that sort of thing. She also has a dog that comes with her all the time. If a kid gets sent to the principal's office, the dog is there to be the kid's friend. The dog sits next to the child, sort of as a silent advocate and support. If a child gets out of control, he/she is sent to the couselor's office to be with the dog, to diffuse the situation. If a situation/classroom gets out of control, the counselor and the dog are sent to help diffuse the situation.
They have something called discovery lab that each class goes to. For kids who need extra help in a certain subject, the teacher/tutor helps them work on that subject. For kids who are doing fine in school, they do extra "work". It is all educational games and such. But most of the time, the kids don't know they are learning. Sometimes its chess or some form of bingo (division and multiplication, for my 3rd grader), or some sort of internet scavagner hunt. Sometimes it is working with manipulatives...build a tower out of a set amount of straws that will support this block, that sort of thing.
Okay, and as far as socialization goes....yes, my kids are getting exposed to some words and behaviors that I would rather they not. But they are also learning how to deal with those situations. I do notice that my kids do better is many social situations than many of my friends's kids who are homeschooled. My kids are more comfortable around a variety of kids. Yes, my friends who hs get their kids lots of socialization opportunities...but it is often with kids whose parents are like them: educated, usually two parent, white, liberal. One of my youngest dd's closest friends in kindergarten is a different color than her, has several siblings who each have a different dad, has a dad who is currently in prison, and lives in a dinky little apartment. I love that they play together, that they are learning that there are more similarities between them than differences, and they are learning to deal with those differences positively.
We were really concerned about bullies, violence, crappy food (my kids take their own lunch!), classroom craziness. And sometimes our concerns are validated, unfortunately. But the bad is 100% outweighed by the good. We are really involved in the school, and the principal is GREAT. The teachers are awesome. The paras and volunteers are fantastic. I love it. My children love it.
Not every school is like this, I know. I know we are very lucky. But, we also EXPECT that we are going to have an awesome school, and we have it. I do alot of work at that school to make it an awesome school. Me and four others basically organized a huge community project/fundraiser that was amazingly successful and a lot of fun. Enthusiasm and happiness is self-perpetuating. When I see the principal being happy and excited to see my kids, I get happy and excited tosee the teacher, who in turn feeds on that and turns it to my kids, who in turn are happy and excited to do their work and be with their friends. Being in public school doesn't mean that you drop your kids off and don't have anything to do with them for several hours. You still have to be involved. Sometimes it is more difficult (and I may be singing a different song if we get a crappy teacher sometime in the upcoming years), but it has been very rewarding. I feel very connected with my neighborhood and my community, more so than I ever have before.
So, there you have it. My long love story with my kids' school! It has been a really positive experience for us. It doesnt work for everyone, and that is why homeschooling is a great option. I wouldn't rule it out (it saved my daughter in first grade, when she was really struggling academically and socially). There are times when one is obviously superior over the other. It is so awesome that our children have many different options. Public school can also be a positive, wonderful option. It doesn't just have to be the fall back, second best option. For us it is currently the BEST, number one option.