Self-esteem can be important in terms of how one thinks, feels, and responds to stressful life events (Overholser et al., 1995). Research has also shown a relation between low self-esteem and feelings of depression and hopelessness in adolescence. Females with low self-esteem are twice as likely to develop depression following a stressful life event than those with average or high self-esteem (Andrews, 1998). During adolescence, a person may experience increased stress in relation to school, friends, and family, as well as new responsibilities and interests (Overholser et al., 1995).
Many factors are related to self-esteem development in adolescence; previous research has focused on academic ability, social acceptance, body image, gender differences, school environment, media influences, socioeconomic status, relationship with family, age, and ethnicity (e.g., Phinney, Cantu, & Kurtz, 1997). For this study, the focus was on investigating self-esteem in relation to age, ethnicity, gender, and risk behaviors among students attending schools outside the mainstream educational system.
SCHOOL ENVIRONMENT AND SELF-ESTEEM
An adolescent's environment, especially school, can have a significant influence on self-esteem development, with junior and senior high being critical years (Chubb et al., 1997). Junior high school has been shown to be an important transition time for an adolescent in terms of healthy self-esteem development (Eccles, Midgley, & Adler, 1984; Seidman, Aber, Allen, & French, 1996). In a relevant longitudinal study, it was found that adolescent self-esteem development may be disrupted by transition to a new school (junior high or high school) (Wigfield, Eccles, Mac Iver, Reuman, & Midgley, 1991). This finding could be related to the interruption of students' social networks at a time when friends and peers are important to adolescent development. Another study found that adolescents who remained in a stable school environment had a greater increase in level of self-esteem over an 18-month period than did adolescents who changed school environments (Cairns, McWhirter, Duffy, & Barry, 1990).
Self-esteem among nonmainstream students is an important area for exploration because research has shown that some nonmainstream students are at increased risk for suicide attempts as compared to mainstream students (Grunbaum, Lowry, & Kann, 2001). Mainstream students are those who attend public schools within a school district. Nonmainstream schools, such as some alternative or charter schools--similar to the ones in this study--are designed for youth who are at risk for either delinquent behavior or poor academic performance (Cox, Davidson, & Bynum, 1995), although it should be noted that these schools can sometimes be for exceptional youth. Much of the current research on nonmainstream schools centers on outcome evaluation studies that document school efficacy on indices such as academic success. Yet, sometimes in such studies, little is reported about participating students' demographic characteristics, individual differences, and self-esteem levels.
An objective of some nonmainstream schools is to improve student retention among students at-risk for dropping out (Dugger & Dugger, 1998). Nonmainstream schools sometimes have smaller class sizes, student-to-teacher ratios, as well as self-paced instruction (Cox et al., 1995). In successful nonmainstream schools, staff members consider counseling students as a part of their job, follow up daily on absent students, model positive behaviors for students, and use individualized, hands-on curriculum, and goal-setting with students (Dugger & Dugger, 1998). Reilly and Reilly (1983) noted that nonmainstream programs, specifically alternative school programs, have been associated, in some instances, with increases in student self-esteem.
There is a dearth of studies that examine self-esteem in relation to nonmainstream school placement. …