Ads with a bleak message about the state's education system are popping up across the Twin Cities — wrapped around light-rail trains and buses and posted on billboards."Minnesota schools are worst in the nation for our children of color," read the black and white ads, which highlight "worst in the nation" in yellow.

The bold statement is clarified in smaller print at the bottom of the signs, citing national statistics on high school graduation rates without specifics. (The most recent data available, from the 2016-17 school year, show Minnesota had the lowest graduation rates of any state for black and Hispanic students, and the second-lowest for American Indian students.)

Leaders of the group behind the campaign — the Ciresi Walburn Foundation for Children — say the ads are deliberately provocative, meant to spark discussion, debate and action by parents, taxpayers, lawmakers and school leaders. Though Minnesota's persistent achievement gaps between white students and their peers of color have been the focus of headlines, conferences, opinion pieces and political campaigns for decades, the group's leaders say many Minnesotans are unaware of the problem.

"You've got to just put it in their face," said Mike Ciresi, a founder and board member of the foundation.

The ads started going up in May, along freeways and busy thoroughfares in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and then spread into surrounding suburbs. A pair of signs appeared in late July along W. Broadway Avenue in north Minneapolis, near Minneapolis Public Schools' headquarters. More will be placed along Snelling Avenue in St. Paul this month, around the time of the State Fair. So far, the foundation has spent about $54,000 on the ads.

Ciresi and Roberta Walburn, another foundation founder and board member, said the ad campaign developed in a brainstorming session with the group's board, which is made up of attorneys, philanthropists and education leaders. Initially called the Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi Foundation for Children, the foundation was created two decades ago with $30 million in attorneys' fees generated from Minnesota's landmark settlement against the tobacco industry. In its early stages, the organization handed out grants to wide-ranging efforts related to young people, from health care to antibullying campaigns. More recently, the focus has shifted to education.

The foundation hands out more than $1 million each year in grants, all from the tobacco settlement and investment proceeds. While much of that money used to go to large districts such as Minneapolis and St. Paul, Ciresi said the foundation determined the money was "kind of going into a black hole in space" within the districts and wasn't making an impact. Now, it primarily provides grants to charter schools, private schools and organizations related to early learning or efforts that emphasize school choice.

Last year, for example, the foundation gave $125,000 to Hiawatha Academies, a Minnesota-based network of charter schools; $120,000 to Northside Achievement Zone, a nonprofit focused on addressing the achievement gap in north Minneapolis; $100,000 each to advocacy groups EdAllies and Minnesota Comeback, and $100,000 to Summit Academy, which provides vocational training programs. Similar or smaller amounts went to several other groups, charter schools and private schools, such as Prodeo Academy, Hope Academy and Risen Christ Catholic School, all in Minneapolis.

Ciresi and Walburn said the group awards grants to schools it believes are effectively tackling challenges such as Minnesota's low graduation rates among students of color, and the gaps between white students and their peers of color. (Last year, there was a 35 percentage-point gap between whites and blacks in statewide reading scores. The math gap is wider.)

They said Minnesota should do more to model strategies from other states, such as expanding funding for early learning scholarships and giving schools more room to experiment. Ciresi and Walburn said they don't fault teachers but think state lawmakers and education officials have been ineffective and not transparent enough about funding, policies and student achievement.

Statewide graduation rates have ticked up in recent years, including for some students of color, and nationwide comparisons of test scores put Minnesota's black and Hispanic students closer to the middle of the pack. Updated state-by-state comparisons of graduation rates, including for the past two school years, are not yet available, so it's unclear if Minnesota's rankings have changed. But Walburn said the foundation's claim of Minnesota as the worst state for students of color still rings true.

"If you look at other measures, by whatever measure you use, we're so bad it's unacceptable," Walburn said. "Are we the worst in other measures? Not necessarily. But it's nothing to be proud of."

Others in education agree that Minnesota has work to do to help all of its students succeed, but some disagree that a dramatic ad campaign is the right strategy.

Bernie Burnham, vice president of Education Minnesota, the teachers union, said she believes people are aware of Minnesota's achievement gaps. She thinks the ads are trying to capitalize on divisions between supporters of traditional public schools and those of charter and private schools.

"The problem again gets back to: what are we going to do about it, how are we going to make change?" she said. "Instead of putting up these shocking billboards — what does that really do?"

Burnham said she opposes the foundation's strategy of focusing on charter and private schools because of the impact on traditional public schools — drawing resources from those districts and making them more segregated. She said the focus should instead be on new strategies, like full-service community schools that link health and social services with schools to provide for students and families, tackling outside challenges that affect student performance.

Minnesota Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said state officials are working to erase achievement gaps.

"No matter what data set you look at, we are committed to significantly improving student learning for Minnesota's students," she said. "Our students deserve all of us working together to support their paths to success and to close gaps. Gov. Walz, Lt. Gov. Flanagan and I all know a whole-child approach will support our students to succeed in the classroom, and we'll continue to invest in and implement that vision."

Others, however, think the foundation's approach may help change the way Minnesotans think about successes and failures in education. Daniel Sellers, executive director of EdAllies, said he's hopeful that it may prompt people to focus more on the needs of specific student groups rather than on the gaps between students of color and their white peers.

Sellers said the mission of his group overlaps with the work of the Ciresi Foundation, which has provided funding and other support — Ciresi and Walburn have both served as EdAllies board members — and said prompting change in education requires bold moves.

Ciresi and Walburn said they hope people will see the billboards and seek that change by contacting their state lawmakers or school board members.

"If you don't acknowledge the problem, things aren't going to change as dramatically as you need them to," Walburn said.