Written by Phil Cerroni
By Alice Canham
Students at Nimitz High School in Irving have been helping people file their income taxes for the last nine years – a free service offered by the IRS through a program known as VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance).
“Back in 2003, the IRS contacted our accounting department about this service, wanting to see if anybody would get involved,” said Bernard Manale, advisor to the Nimitz Student Council and a special education teacher at the school.
“The kids get community service hours and it goes on their resume, plus when they graduate, they get credit for participating.
“I decided it would be worthwhile.”
Manale estimates that 100 students have assisted in completing at least 500 tax forms since the partnership began.
“These kids have to go through some rigorous training to understand the policies and guidelines,” he continued. “And they’re held to strict standards of confidentiality and ethics.”
At this time, VITA is only available at Nimitz High School within the Irving ISD. While most of the participants have been Nimitz students, a few young people from Irving and Mac Arthur High Schools have also come through the program – along with a handful of adults.
“I’m gratified if we have 8 – 12 people that stick with it through tax season,” Manale added. “Some of them drop out after the first training class, maybe because they’re overwhelmed by the volume of material, and the speed that they have to learn it all.”
A key factor in their success and follow-through, Manale believes, is the encouragement of accounting teachers like Vickie Garrett at Nimitz.
“Every year we have two or three of her students join us,” said Manale.
But knowledge of accounting is not really required for VITA certification. Students work with a software program that works up the IRS forms for them. They are taught what questions to ask and what factors to look for in each taxpayer’s paperwork – and the program does the math for them. Students may elect to become certified at a basic level, or to get additional training to work with military families or foreign students.
And the community has endorsed it. While there are always those customers who become upset when their calculated return doesn’t meet their expectations, there are even more customers who are grateful for the free service. Repeat customers include Nimitz families and a good number of school district employees. Manale added that the Nimitz students, many of them bilingual, have frequently been asked to work at sites beyond the high school so that they can serve as interpreters.
“I’ve seen some of our students continue to work in this field after high school graduation,” he said. “We’ve had a couple of students that have gotten jobs with tax preparation services – those so-called ‘tax in a box’ places. And we’ve had students who began with us in their sophomore year and stayed with us through their senior year.
“I call those success stories.”
Frances Valdes is a sophomore, age 15, just beginning her training program for basic VITA certification. The Nimitz student is a student council member who recently moved to Irving from Santa Clarita, CA.
“My Dad used to take those [paid tax preparation service] classes,” she said. “I think it’s valuable to know about taxes because that’s something that you don’t learn in high school – but it’s going to continue to be important after high school.
“It’s not so much about the math, to me. It’s more about understanding every person’s situation, and how you apply the rules in each case. For example, say there’s a single mother with a kid – maybe that’s a situation that makes the tax picture more complicated. But I think I’ll be good at this because I can understand those details, and I’m a quick learner.”
Students will be available to assist at Nimitz High School, 100 W. Oakdale, on Saturdays from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m., beginning Feb. 2 and continuing through tax season. Manale urges taxpayers to bring a photo ID, all 2012 income documentation and social security number if they wish to use the service.
To learn more about VITA: www.irs.gov/Individuals/Free-Tax-Return-Preparation-for-You-by-Volunteers .