Sullivan County Democrat
Callicoon, New York
January 22, 2010 Issue
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Jeanne Sager | Democrat

MONTICELLO SENIOR EBONY Andrews prepares the taxes of Monticello graduate Gabriel Henriquez, a Monticello resident.

IRS certifies students

By Jeanne Sager
MONTICELLO — There’s nothing like April 15 drawing near to put a little sweat on the average adult’s brow.
Thank goodness for teenagers.
Because while the over 18 set is helplessly navigating the tax code, the Monticello High School Academy of Finance is open for business.
Free business.
For the second year in a row, juniors and seniors in the business program at the Monticello high school have been certified by the IRS in the national Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.
If you’re lost, they can help.
Every Thursday, from 2:15 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. at the Monticello High School, the students wait patiently for clients.
The first day was nerve-racking for the kids.
“I didn’t want to mess up,” Greg Siegel admitted. “I didn’t want to be the reason someone was wanted by the IRS!”
Don’t worry – these kids are professionals. Every one has passed a certification test given by the IRS – a test that senior Shanné Walknine posited is a lot harder than the actual tax preparation has been.
There’s also a back up system - a quality review. Every tax form is reviewed by Sue Behrenberg, a CPA who teaches in the finance academy, or math teacher Eric Shewmaker. Both of the teachers had to go through certification with the IRS too.
The bulk of the responsibility falls to the kids – who greet their clients, break down the process and then get to work.
It’s been a learning experience unlike any other in their two years in the program – a business-track that’s open to students who apply in 10th grade and undergo an interview process and review of their grades.
“People come in with new challenges, and we learn more and more things as the VITA program goes on,” said Tyler Wuerthner.
“I don’t think the biggest challenges have walked in the door,” explained senior Sheryl Berkowitz. “I didn’t know what a dependent was, what EITC was.
“Learning the basics was the hardest part,” she said, explaining that an EITC is an earned income tax credit.
The study process was lengthy – finance academy students could be picked out in the Monticello hallways by their ShopRite bags loaded down with tax preparation books.
“Everyone had holes in their bags, it was so heavy,” Meghan Hughes said with a laugh.
It’s no wonder the average adult is overwhelmed by tax season, the kids say. And it was overwhelming to them too – at first.
“When we first started doing it, having somebody older looking over your shoulder was scary,” Siegel said. “It’s it’s not as intimidating once you do it.”
Neither are the adults the kids meet.
“Somebody you respect, now they have to respect you,” said Tanner Wuerthner. “They don’t say anything but thank you, and they seem to respect you more.”
“You realize, I can do your taxes – and you kind of . . . can’t,” Berkowitz added with a grin. “Knowledge is power for us.”
And they’re using their power for good. Last year the kids did 55 tax returns – all for free.
This year they’ve done at least 20, including an amended return for a man who’d already paid for the whole process at H&R Block, only to have an extra W-2 land in his mailbox.
The kids are learning vital business skills, instructor Wendy Levinson explained – including how to work with the public, discipline, responsibility – while the public gets a vital service . . . or rather, a VITA service.
To get free tax preparation services, stop by the Monticello High School any Thursday afternoon between now and April 15. The service is open from 2:15 p.m. to 4:15 p.m.

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