Not long ago Lawrence public schools were an absolute mess. High crime and poverty were some of the reasons cited for a high school dropout rate of 50 percent. Not to mention the fact that the school superintendent was indicted for embezzlement and drinking on the job.

Jeff Riley was installed in 2012 to bring Lawrence Public Schools back from the brink. The state put Lawrence into what’s called “receivership” and made Riley superintendent and school committee rolled into one.

When Riley first arrived, Lawrence was being called the city of the damned. "We had some challenges, no doubt about that, but the extreme negativity that was happening in the city, it was over the top," he said. "In some ways it was a rallying cry to say 'we’re not going to take this anymore'.”

Riley says he was given free rein to make sweeping changes. He could have fired all the teachers and started with a clean slate. Instead, Riley cut central office staff—by a third—and gave half the principals marching orders.

Ninety percent of the teachers kept their jobs and were paid more in exchange for extending the school day.

There was a lot of talent here," Riley said. "We didn’t want to come in to be an occupying force. We decided we were going to do things with people, not to people. We wanted everyone to feel they were welcome at the table."

He added back arts and sports because, he says, it enriches the overall education. And he’s worked hard to bring parents into their children’s education by making their lives just a bit easier—he’s opened an office that provides adult education, job training, and financial help.

He also brought in Acceleration Academies during school breaks for students that need extra help in certain subjects. They’re week-long, intensive school sessions.

Edgedliz Quezada is an eighth grader who spent last February break brushing up on reading and writing. “When you get this opportunity, you have to take it all in because not a lot of kids get chosen for this so when you get [chosen], you have to work hard," Quezada said. "To get a chance to better your skills, it’s going to help you so when that test comes around you’re like I got this.'"

Students are invited to participate but teachers have to apply. The process is very competitive. Educators from across the country are clamoring to get in. It’s their chance to experiment in a classroom with small groups of dedicated students.

Caroline Piers is a seventh grade teacher in Lawrence. She remembers her early inhibitions about the program.

"We get to try new things that we might be like 'yikes I’m going to do that with 30 kids?' No, it’s like 25," she said, "But we’ll say 'I’m going to wait 'til Feb break to bust that out.'"

The experiment in Lawrence Public Schools seems to be working. In the past four years, the dropout rate has been cut in half. The district now has the best math and language proficiency results it’s ever seen. Longtime teachers like Piers are happy they stuck around long enough to see the change.

"I see the kids getting excited, and to see the kids I had as seventh graders now thriving in high school and they’re like, 'I get it,' and now they’re in high school and they’re still getting something out of school," she said.

Lawrence has become a model for failing districts in other states that are trying to turn themselves around. In fact, in the past two years Massachusetts has placed two more districts into receivership, Holyoke and Southbridge, using Lawrence as a template.

However, critics believe that the results aren’t good enough.

Jim Stergios is the Executive Director of Pioneer Institute, a Massachusetts think-tank known for its support of charter schools. He says the bar for success could be higher.

“We’re still at the level where proficiency is hovering between 50 to 60 percent," he said. "So one of the questions we need to ask ourselves is if this is a remarkable success, are we dumbing down our definition of what success is for our kids? Shouldn’t we expect that our kids are 90 percent proficient, whether they’re in Lawrence or Brookline? And my answer to that would be yes."

This is something that Jeff Riley recognizes. “No one is claiming victory," he said. "We’ve seen some improvements but we know we have a long way to go.”

Although there's no timetable for the receivership in Lawrence, Riley's contract is currently set to end in 2018. 

WGBH’s coverage of K-12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.