The sky was still dark Monday morning when four girls climbed out of a school bus, book bags on their shoulders and babies on their hips.

Following a planning ordeal that began long before any of the little ones was born, Monday marked the opening of the Baby Steps Program in the Brooklyn Center School District. It was the first day of school for the tots and a new shot at graduation for some of their young mothers.

The program, run out of a former office space at the Brooklyn Center Academy alternative high school, offers teen moms and dads the opportunity to get high school diplomas. The district bolsters the teens' own determination to complete their schooling by offering consistent on-site licensed child care.

"We've got a lot of students, primarily girls, who have dropped out of school because of pregnancy and having a child," said Brooklyn Center School Superintendent Keith Lester. "How do we get them back to school and get them so they graduate in spite of whatever difficulties having a child may have introduced?"

Other alternative schools in the Twin Cities offer on-site child care and parenting classes. But Baby Steps stands out because of the breadth of services it offers young families, including transportation, a kindergarten readiness curriculum, social worker services to help teen parents navigate the bureaucracy of county assistance programming and an on-site clinic to address the health, dental and mental health care needs of the children and their parents.

A cooperative of the district's partners, the Northwest Teen Parent Connection, is viewing the startup as a model that could be reproduced elsewhere, said Michelle Trelstad, the district's community education director.

Four girls and their babies make up the inaugural class so far, but that number is expected to grow. School officials said three applications are pending, five students start later this month, and two are currently pregnant. The newly renovated, 7,000-square-foot day-care center is licensed for as many as 40 children, Trelstad said.

Vangie Schill, the site's assistant director, is the one who really runs the place, Trelstad said. Schill was once a teen mom who went on to marry, graduate from college and start a successful career. She is uniquely qualified to help these students succeed, Trelstad said.

"Whenever you feel like you're doing anything alone, you're more apt to feel helpless," she said. "It's all about the support, having people there to encourage them and set an example for them."

Delphie Kamara, a 17-year-old from Brooklyn Park, is mother to Darlington, who is 1. She missed nearly a year of school because she lacked consistent and affordable child care, and transportation to get him there and back home again. Now she's back in school, with high hopes for both herself and her son.

"He's quite smart," she said, beaming. "I know he can learn quick, too. ... It's good to hear at night -- I can pick him up and he knows some new words."

The new arrangement, she said, also means that they get up and get ready together in the morning and it gives her flexibility to finish her homework during the day so she can spend her evenings bonding with her son.

Elvira Alvarado, 16, had a similar story, having missed about a year of school to care for her 19-month-old son. Elvira's sister often cared for Julian, but many times, the young mom had to stay home. Not anymore.

"I'll be coming more to school," she said. "I do really good in school. It's just the attendance."

The program is open to any teen parent, though the district can provide transportation only within 2 1/2 miles of the school building on Shingle Creek Parkway, and staff members hope not to turn away any student from the Brooklyn Center attendance area.

The center's $120,000 startup costs -- extensive remodeling and mold remediation at the site, equipment and startup salaries -- were funded largely by grant money. The district will use a $75,000 grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation, plus $20,000 from the Northwest Hennepin Family Service Collaborative. The district covered the rest using capital bond money. The services to the teen parents and their babies will be provided by the district's partners, including Hennepin County Medical Center, Brookdale Library, the Minnesota Visiting Nurses Association, Children's Dental Services, St. Davids Center, Hennepin Care North, Jewish Family Children's Services and Family Advocate.

In many cases, the partners already had the services available; now the school district is providing its own venue.

Lester is sensitive to the idea that some folks might say these services should be provided by the private sector.

"The problem with all these things is that everybody says that, but nobody's doing anything about it," he said. "We're doing everything we can to keep kids in school and bring kids back to school. We want kids in our school district to graduate from high school and have a better life, and we want to do everything we can to make that happen."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409