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Monticello High School students featured in The Trusted Professional

May 12, 2017 

By CHRIS GAETANO
Trusted Professional Staff

Article originally published in The Trusted Professional, the newspaper of the New York State Society of Certified Public Accountants.

 You’re never too young to learn how to file a tax return—something the high school seniors at the Academy of Finance in Monticello, N.Y., have demonstrated through their participation in their local Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program (VITA). While VITA is more typically seen on college campuses, Susan Bahrenburg, who teaches financial accounting, decision making and international business at the school, thought the program would be a good experience for high school students as well. That was 10 years ago. Since then, the program has been a resounding success. Bahrenburg said that every senior participates as part of his or her financial decision-making class. In that class, students are trained on the IRS-provided software and then, between February and April, help people in the community to file their taxes. Because participation is calculated into their final grade, the students need to put at least 15 hours into the program.

Besides serving as VITA accountants, the students are also marketers: As part of their business communications class, they create and distribute fliers, secure advertizing on local cable channels, and even set up phone campaigns, all to promote the program and let people know it’s available to them. Last year, said Bahrenburg, the class had completed 175 tax returns—their highest number to date—though she added that the students hoped to break that record this year. As of early April, she reported, the class of 23 high school seniors had prepared 139 returns, saving the public more than $32,000 in tax prep fees. While she and a colleague supervise the students, she said it’s rare that they need to intervene, as the students are able to handle the vast majority of situations themselves.

Rachel Rivera, one of the students, admitted that she was a little nervous preparing the first few returns, but was able to quickly find her feet.

“At first, I was a little terrified I might mess it up, something like that, but after a while, I understood it wasn’t as complex as it might have seemed, and people are just really great to interact with,” she said.

Another student, Patrick Sikorski, said he was also “up for the challenge.” He also appreciated how the program expands access to tax preparation services to people who might not have been able to afford them.

“It’s great to keep those tax prep fees in our clients’ pockets, and have that money left in our community,” he said.

Bahrenburg said that the people who use the VITA service have very positive experiences, noting that a large percentage of their clients are repeat customers, and the ones who aren’t are usually referrals from those who are. While they can’t pay for the services that the VITA students provide—despite some clients’ attempts to try—clients donate morale boosters instead, such as doughnuts, cookies or pizza, which the students always welcome. And although these students are much younger than the average tax preparer, Bahrenburg said that she can count on one hand the number of times anyone has expressed skepticism about whether they were mature enough to do thework. The rest saw what she sees:

“They’re really wonderfully mature young professionals. They respect people’s financial information and confidentiality, they know this is not a dinner table conversation, and that’s one of the things I’m most proud about—the students respect and understand and portray that when sitting with a client working on a return with them,” she said.