The wide diversity of students include the gifted and talented and the children of ambassadors and foreign dignitaries. Emerson also welcomes students dissatisfied with larger schooling environments such as the public schools. The school serves high school students from Maryland, DC, and Virginia.
Emerson was founded in the District of Columbia in 1852 by Charles Bedford Young, Ph.D., as a school to prepare young boys exclusively for Harvard. It was named for George Barrell Emerson, a noted New England educator, author, and Harvard graduate (1817). After the Civil War the school's graduates began to attend other colleges and universities, and, in 1920, became Washington's first coeducational preparatory school.
It is thought by some who know the school that John Wilkes Booth may have attended Emerson. All that is verifiable is that he attended a preparatory school in the Washington area in the mid-19th century, and Emerson was one of the few at that time. The school has a number of Abraham Lincoln busts and paintings throughout the building.
Notable Emerson graduates include Kate Grinold (2003), who was crowned Miss District of Columbia in June 2008 and will represent the District in this year's Miss America Pageant, movie actor Jared Leto (class of 1989) and musician, Brian Baker (1983). Judge John "Maximum John" Sirica of Watergate fame attended Emerson circa 1920. Buck and Jesse Root Grant, the sons of President Ulysses S. Grant, attended Emerson Institute during his White House years, 1869-1877.
Emerson's school seal features an image of the U.S. Capitol dome and the date 1852. The school mascot is the owl, symbolizing wisdom.
Emerson achieves its accelerated graduation (typically within two and a half to three years) through very small class sizes, typically never larger than ten students, and the use of the term system. The school requires student applicants to submit three letters of recommendation, participate in a personal interview, and take two placement exams, one in English and one in mathematics.
The school's academic year is modeled after the British System and has two terms per year rather than two semesters. Courses are completed in full during each four-and-a-half month term. An optional summer session is offered from late June through early August (six weeks). Each term's schedule of classes includes four ninety-minute class periods per day, five days per week. There is a one hour lunch period, from 11:20 a.m. to 12:20 p.m. Emerson students have the privilege of off campus lunch. The students are allowed to leave the school grounds in order to purchase their lunch from the many restaurants and carry outs located in the Dupont Circle area.
Emerson has approximately ten to fifteen teachers, and most teach on a part-time basis. Some Emerson teachers only teach one class or a one-on-one tutorial. A typical classload for an instructor is two to three 90-minute classes per day. Apart from the traditional curriculum, private tutorials can be arranged for advanced level courses.
These administrative policies contribute to the excellent character and quality of the teachers, who form the backbone of the faculty. Any given school year has a core group of teachers who have been with the school for more than three years. Several of the current core group have taught at the school for five or more years.
Emerson draws many of its teachers from among the disciplines in which they actually work: it is not unusual for scientists, writers, economists, language scholars, lawyers, and historians to work as teachers. Some Emerson teachers are mid-career in their fields, others are retired, and still others are early-career or in the final stages of their masters' or doctorate degree programs.
Teachers are drawn to Emerson because it gives them the freedom to structure creative curricula, design unique and advanced level courses, and set their own classroom rules. Some Emerson classes are run strictly while others are more relaxed. One instructor currently incorporates periods of relaxation and meditation techniques into ongoing lessons, while another has been known to assign as many as sixteen books in a single term, teaching at a level of rigor comparable to advanced undergraduate work. The students themselves are the primary quality-control device; they select many of their classes and can request certain teachers.
Emerson course offerings have included:
Many of these classes were requested by students, or designed by teachers on the basis of discussions and interests revealed by faculty and students in a previous term. Students often participate in the planning of a class, although final course selections are determined by the school director in accordance with the overall needs of the student body during a given term.
Classes for the spring term of 2008 included one on military history entitled War and Peace-20th Century Foreign Policy, Economics, and Japanese Language. The core academic courses such as Algebra, Geometry, Pre-Calculus, Calculus, English Composition, Literature, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, U.S. History, American Government, and Foreign Languages are offered each term.
Emerson's daily ninety-minute class periods provide teachers with time to structure their classes to include more discussion, in-depth individual or team work, and extended lessons in a single day. Many teachers use the extra time for multimedia presentations like movies or music relevant to the course.
Field trips are an integral part of the Emerson program. Classes take numerous field trips throughout the city each term.
Emerson has a diverse student population, with students as young as 11 years old and as old as 19 or 20 years old, and students from all parts of the world. The Emerson environment is casual and friendly. It is not uncommon for students to leave larger schools because of social or academic issues, come to Emerson, feel comfortable, and quickly find themselves able to manage what was too hard before. Emerson is welcoming and flexible. Each new student is hand-selected, so Emerson is able to select students based on more than just transcripts and reports. Emerson admits many teenagers who have struggled in other school settings, when the admissions team is confident that the student will be able to succeed in the very nurturing and manageable Emerson environment.
A student must earn a minimum of 22 units of credit to graduate from Emerson Preparatory School. Emerson is a tuition based school. The current tuition is $20,000 per school year. Students graduate within three years and most go straight on to college. Other graduates take a gap year following graduation in order to pursue other interests before enrolling in college. Emerson has a limited number of formal scholarships and financial aid available each year, and these factors are examined in concert with families of prospective students when financial limitations exist. Emerson admits students from a wide variety of racial, ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds.
Emerson had sports and drama, teams when it was first founded and later under the direction of Dean John J. Humphrey, the school's headmaster from 1939–1999, but since 1946 Emerson's main focus and strength has been on academics and preparing students for college level work. Emerson encourages it's studentes to form clubs. At the moment there is a Chess Club and a Fashion Club which meet once a week. Emerson's Robotics Team is named, Lord Wellington's Beef Trapeze, the Vex Robotics Team.
Emerson occupies an historic building in the Dupont Circle area of downtown DC. The building has 9 classrooms, a science laboratory, a reading room, a conference room, and a library/computer room where students can study or use the computers to do research on the web. The school also has wireless internet, which is great for students who prefer to bring their own laptops to school. There is an attractive and private courtyard behind the school building. During the Spring, Summer and early Fall, some teachers will hold an occasional class in the courtyard. During the Spring of 2008, the courtyard underwent a major renovation. The new courtyard was re-opened to students and teachers on June 24th, 2008.