Named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emerson High School opened in September 1908. The first school in the world to fully incorporate Dr. William A. Wirt's "Work, Study, Play" educational platform, Emerson was state of the art for its time. The school boasted mechanical shops, science labs, a student-run bank, a student-run zoo and was the first educational facility in the nation to have an indoor swimming pool. Emerson High School is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Emerson High School closed in 1981 due to under population. However, the building reopened during the mid-80s as Emerson VPA, the first Visual and Performing Arts schools in the state of Indiana. In 2008 the Emerson building was shuttered once again due to mold issues. The district moved its visual and performing arts program first to the former Kennedy King Middle School and then into the former William A. Wirt High School building in Gary's scenic Miller Beach community. In 2009, the district renamed the school "Wirt-Emerson Visual and Performing Arts High Ability Academy."