Extra Credits

In the hectic days of high school, these four students found the time to become tax prep pros–and help their neighbors find financial opportunity.

Close your eyes. When you hear the word “accountant” what image springs to mind? A gentleman with glasses and a tie and an expensive-looking calculator? A woman at a desk, dwarfed by a book of IRS regulations the size of a small tool shed? Odds are you didn’t picture a fresh-faced high school senior who looks barely old enough to drive, much less able to navigate the labyrinthine United States tax code.

For the quartet of teenaged number-crunchers from the accounting class at the Richard W. Creteau Regional Technology Center at Spaulding High School in Rochester, NH that was the biggest hurdle: dealing with the looks of skepticism from the people who showed up to have their taxes done for free.

“One guy asked if I was ten years old,” said Justine Short, 17, from Wakefield.  “And old enough to be doing taxes.”

It didn’t take long for the incertitude to wash away. As part of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, these young volunteers journeyed through weeks of rigorous tax prep training and emerged as IRS-certified pros. VITA is funded by United Way and coordinated by The CA$H Coalition of Southeastern New Hampshire.

“I am in awe they were able to accomplish this,” said their teacher Tracy Mitropoulos, who worked closely with Kathe Fredette, VITA program coordinator.

“These teenagers spent entire school days, stayed after school, ate lunch at their computers and weren’t going to stop  until they passed the certification exam,” says Fredette. “And they all did with a 90% or better.”

As much as a grind  it was to earn the certification—the biggest challenge? “Studying all the tax laws!” according to Tyler Mitchell, 17, from Rochester—the true test would come when the practice runs ended and they sat across from a real person, tax return in hand, a significant amount of money in the balance.

“It was nerve-wracking, definitely,” said Brandon Sargent, 18, from Rochester. “It’s such a big deal. For many people that tax return is going to be extremely important for them.”

VITA, which is almost entirely volunteer-powered, specifically serves low and moderate-income individuals and families. The goal is two-fold: 1) provide, for free, a service that can normally be costly (having your taxes done by an IRS-trained professional) and, 2) maximize refund avenues like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and child credits. These savings are critical to helping people make ends meet. The IRS estimated that over 3,000 EITC eligible tax credits went unclaimed last year in Rockingham and Stafford counties, totaling over $6 million.

For the remainder of tax season these four high school students will spend their weekends–those precious weekends!–helping others, be it at Albany Engineered Composites, a Rochester-based manufacturing plant, or the Rochester Community Center. The time commitment has been formidable, but the payoff is huge.

“A couple came in together for my first married filed jointly return,” recounts Katie Menard, 18, of Rochester. “They asked me what my career was outside of taxes. I told them I was actually a high school senior and they thought that I was joking. They were amazed that a student could get certified, but were also amazed at how professional we all were. It made me feel proud.”