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On Saturdays at Rancho Cucamonga High School, the indoor-outdoor campus can resemble a community carnival.

Last week at 7:30 a.m., teams of spandex-clad, color-guard flag bearers warmed up for a competition on whatever patch of concrete was available. Setup was beginning for a Black cultural celebration.

And on a lower level, in a classroom sandwiched by a “Cash for College” meeting and a study session for students in A.P. Chinese, a group of teenagers filled out tax returns for anyone who had heard about their free clinic.

Three generations of one family came, having heard about the clinic from the fourth — the great-grandmother. They brought along a brand-new dependent: a 2-month-old baby. A boy in a Spider-Man suit watched Spider-Man videos while his grandparents received help. Two retirees — one a Harley enthusiast and another who arrived on a spiffy electric bicycle — checked in as well.

That anyone would trust high school students to prepare their returns is the doing of a little-known service called VITA, which stands for Volunteer Income Tax Assistance. It is an Internal Revenue Service program that trains people to help their neighbors with the annual task.

To participate, the students must plow through a kind of Income Tax 101 curriculum and then take tests drawn from Form 6744. (The I.R.S. has a form or publication for basically everything.)

At Rancho, as everyone refers to the school, the students work under the tutelage of Chris Van Duin, who has taught accounting there for 22 years. Each January, he starts showing up just after sunrise on Saturdays with breakfast burritos for his students.

On the day I was there, soft jazz was playing. At his desk, one screen displayed information on the clinic’s clients while another had the Manchester United-Fulham soccer match on mute. His cellphone rang every so often, because clinic clients have his personal number.

The students trickled in. Calob Chavez, 17, wants to be an investment banker. Destiny Linda, 17, hopes to get a doctorate in business someday. Many of them now look over their parents’ shoulders to make sure they file their tax returns on time and get every deduction.

There is no predicting who might turn up on any given Saturday. One victim of identity theft was trying to use a special PIN to file her taxes. Someone else was doing his taxes for the first time in seven years. He sat with seven neat stacks of paper in front of him. It looked like he would owe over $10,000.

“I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy,” said Nicholas Rosales, a 16-year-old junior who took his first accounting class a year ago and is now Mr. Van Duin’s teaching assistant.

Every tax return tells a story. Where do you live? What do you do? What kind of income does that yield? Whom are you raising, housing and helping — and how?

Reading even one return — let alone the 250 or so that the Rancho students put their hands on last year — is a kind of object lesson in personal finance. Ask the right questions of the person behind the numbers and you can learn a lot about how the world works and the paths to making your way in it.

When I first met with the students, they were perplexed by someone who was scheduled to come in the next day. She had five jobs in 2023. “How do people balance that many?” Nicholas asked.

On Saturday morning, Abigail Jimenez, 27, presented herself and explained. She had started the year as a salon-supply store manager. After a brief stint as a part-time receptionist, a competitor of the salon-supply store offered her a job and she jumped.

Then, she decided on a career change. Around the same time, she and her boyfriend moved, and she took a new job at a leasing company. Finally, as her professional interests shifted to numbers, she found work at an accounting firm, albeit one where they don’t file returns until later in the year, including those of their employees.

She wanted her refund, if any, as soon as possible, so she came to the clinic.

By 10 a.m., there were so many clients that there were no students left to help them. Groups huddled around computer screens, putting basic information into TaxSlayer, a software program. The guy with the seven returns was still there, walking in and out of the room every so often to talk on the phone.

Would he like to comment? “Hoooooo,” he said, tipping his head back before declining to say anything else.

The work winds down by noon each Saturday. In class, the students finish returns that they did not complete during the Saturday rush.

This year, Nicholas did his own taxes for the first time. “I work at Taco Bell,” he said. “I got an $8 refund. Which is $8 I can buy more candy with.”

But those refunds can get bigger over time if you know what to look for. “There are people who don’t have that knowledge,” Destiny said. “They lose out on a lot of opportunities.”

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