Updated: Oct. 2, 2011 -- To start kindergarten, Chrystalbella Rudder, 5, got a slightly used pair of white, rubber-soled shoes, courtesy of the Boston Housing Authority.
Her black-and-green backpack was a gift from South Boston Action Center. And Chrystalbella’s school supplies – glue, scissors, a notebook, and modeling clay – came from Cradles to Crayons, a nonprofit that supports children from low-income backgrounds.
“She’s excited,” said her mother, Chrissanta Rudder, 42. “She wants to meet the other kids.”
Rudder is raising two girls in the Old Colony housing development in South Boston. She has lived in an apartment for six years after a long struggle with homelessness. Her girls – Chrystalbella and 3-year-old Candelaria – seem like twins at different ages, each with unbridled energy and bouncing ponytails.
The top school choice for Chrystalbella was the Perry Elementary in the wealthier City Point section of South Boston. But the school department assigned Chrystalbella to the Perkins, which is a block away from her apartment in the heart of the worn, brick housing project. Rudder is still happy, however, because she can walk her daughter to school.
Last month, the family trudged uphill to Broadway for a school-sponsored countdown to kindergarten event at the South Boston Library. The sisters largely stuck together as they worked through activities: making paper dolls, getting temporary tattoos, and following the exercise moves of a local karate trope.
Then the two dozen incoming kindergarteners gathered for songs, and Chrystalbella stepped into her own. Her mother had long made her practice her alphabet with pencil on lined paper, so she knew her letters better than many children her age.
When it came time to sing the alphabet song, Chrystalbella could not be restrained. Brimming with confidence, she stood on her tip-toes as her voice carried above the other children.
Update: March 28, 2011 -- Second choice made Chrissanta Rudder jump up and down in the hall at the mailboxes, the letter with her older daughter's school assignment flapping in commotion.
Her daughter, Chrystabella, stared blankly at her mother's excitement, the 4-year-old not grasping what it meant that she got into K-2 at Perkins Elementary School in South Boston. Rudder's youngest, 3-year-old Candelaria, did not win one of the rare seats in K-0, a program largely for children with special needs.
For Chrystabella, Perkins is a block from their apartment in the Old Colony house development. It means no bus trips to a school in another neighborhood. It means her mother can walk her home after class.
"I’m so thrilled she got into the Perkins," Rudder said with a broad smile. "Now she just has to worry about the homework."
March 13, 2011 -- In the Old Colony housing development, the dank stairwell was cold and dark, even during the day. But inside Chrissanta Rudder's second-floor apartment in South Boston, handwritten neon-yellow signs added bright splashes of color to the kitchen wall.
"Give them a love for learning," read one sign. Another said: "Teach them to be smart!!!"
Rudder has already started teaching her two youngest girls to be smart, practicing strokes and circles with a pencil on lined paper she bought from the dollar store. She registered the girls -- Chrystalbella, 4, and Candelaria, 3 -- for the kindergarten lottery for next fall.
Pulling a rumpled blue paper out of a Corona Extra box that serves as a file cabinet, Rudder showed off her six school choices for Chrystalbella. Her top choice was the Perry K - 8 School in South Boston, because she likes the science and math program.
"She's very smart," Rudder said of Chrystalbella. "She's like me -- when she gets frustrated, she keeps going."
Rudder, 42, was born on Dec. 25, and her first name -- Chrissanta -- is a melding of "Christmas" and "Santa Claus." She moved into her apartment in 2006, she said, after five years of homelessness. She has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and does not have custody of her three older children.
Growing up in predominantly in Mattapan, Rudder attended parochial schools, she said. She would consider a Catholic school for her girls, but it seemed out of reach on her budget.
"It would be hard," said Rudder, who does not work but receives Social Security income because of her disability.
In her apartment, Rudder has affixed her most treasured documents to her wall -- her credential as a certified nursing assistant, her associate's degree from Roxbury Community College.
Her girls look almost like twins at different stages of life. Chrystalbella is 18-months older and much taller than Candelaria, but they both have pigtails, smiles, and the same boundless energy. The younger one has her name in for a coveted K-0 slot, a longshot for a citywide program with only 149 seats for children without special needs. Chrystalbella, however, is guaranteed a spot, but it might not be the Perry or any of the six schools she listed as preferences.
"I wouldn't be happy," Rudder said. "But I have no choice."
Every day, the girls practice writing, repeating the same three letters until they get it right. One week, Candelaria focused on C, T, and A. Chrystalbella had moved on to numbers.
"Chrystalbella knows her alphabet. She knows how to sing," Rudder said. "I want to get the best school."