Detroit high school students to prepare free tax returns through April 2

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — Nadia Lawrence rushed to the printer to grab her certificate. It printed out too large, and she would need to resize and resend it, but she was the first in her class to earn the honor, and proud of what she'd done. 

"IRS certified," the 17-year-old said, holding up the too-large certificate.

In just four weeks, and before even graduating high school, Lawrence had become an IRS-certified tax preparer — a skill she will offer free to her neighbors starting Monday at Detroit's Martin Luther King Jr. High School.

From Feb. 10 to April 2, Lawrence will be in a cohort of about 40 students at King and Southeastern high schools who will prepare and file tax returns for members of their community.

Marianna Eggleston, left, 17, answers a question from classmate Imani Ziyad, 18, both seniors at Martin Luther King High School in Detroit.

The tax prep sessions will run from 5 to 8 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays at King, and Tuesdays and Thursdays at Southeastern.

"We're going to hang out our shingle and it's going to be free tax services for our community," said Brenda Belcher, assistant superintendent for the Detroit Public Schools Community District's office of college and career readiness and adult education. "We're really excited about this opportunity for our students." 

The tax preparation pilot program is a collaboration of Detroit's school district, Troy-based Flagstar Bank, and the Accounting Aid Society.

It was inspired by a program at Waco Independent School District in Texas that, in its first 15 years, completed 25,302 tax returns comprising almost $44 million in refunds in about 15,000 volunteer hours.

"We're hoping to bring the same kind of results to Detroit," said Beth Correa, director of corporate responsibility for Flagstar. "There are so many tax credits people are not aware of, especially people who don't feel they can afford to pay for tax preparation."

For Flagstar, which granted $30,000 to the project, the pilot is not just about service to the tax clients, but career exposure for students.

"There is a workforce gap we're trying to address," Correa said.  

DPSCD spokesperson Chrystal Wilson, left, takes a picture of senior-student Nadia Lawrence, 17, of Detroit, as she poses with her test certificate. She scored a 100% on the test.

Making it count

Referrals will come through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services' Pathways to Potential initiative. 

Caseworkers referred to as "success coaches" at more than 300 schools in 40 counties will be responsible for scheduling these appointments, said health department spokesman Bob Wheaton. People need not be getting assistance benefits from the state to qualify.

For the Accounting Aid Society, the high school pilot is an extension of its Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, which has brought in more than $440 million in tax returns to Metro Detroit residents and businesses over the last 45 years. It completes about 18,000 tax returns per year.

"We have the same requirements" of volunteers, whether they be adults or high school students, said Gabrielle Thomas, chief operations officer for the Accounting Aid Society. "We have the same quality requirements and commitments. We're just moving this to a student-led group."

Junior De'Janique Jennings, left, of Detroit, takes the IRS test with other classmates, Wednesday afternoon during a tax prep class at Martin Luther King, Jr. Senior High School  in Detroit.

Every year, the society recruits and trains more than 400 to 500 volunteers, Thomas said.   

"It's not every day you go talk to somebody that knows how to prepare taxes or is an accountant," Thomas said. "Accounting firms are having a hard time getting students to fill those vacancies."

Lawrence learned of the opportunity through her principles of accounting and finance class. Beforehand, she was already all business: serving as the state president of Skills USA, a career and technical education group, and the local president for the Business Professionals of America. At a regional BPA competition in January 2018, Lawrence won first place for prepared speech, according to the DPSCD Digest. 

"There are a lot of people out here who are financially illiterate," Lawrence said. "I'm a student and I get to teach my parents and other adults how to become financially literate. That's a huge deal for me."

Accounting Aid Society Program Manager Garylle Smith, of Southfield, walks between students as she announces test instructions.

No nonsense

Garylle Smith, 35, instructed the King students and will oversee their work during tax season. Training high schoolers is different than training adults, who have some experience filing taxes, Smith said. 

Her instructional manner is no-nonsense and question-based, asking the students, on their final class together, to put together what they've learned over the last month. 

The resources available to the classes of 2020 and 2021 are more robust than she had as a 2003 graduate of Osborn High School.

"I didn't have this experience. I knew nothing about taxes," Smith said. "So while I'm educating them, they will be educating the taxpayer."

The United Way for Southeastern Michigan contributed gap funding to the project.

For the Detroit Public Schools Community District, it's another addition to its years-long focus on career preparation, another leveraging of the wealth and expertise of the larger Detroit community for the benefit of its students. 

And for the students involved, tax preparation is not only a resume enhancer, but a way to secure the finances of both their families and their communities outside school walls. 

The program in Detroit is modeled after a volunteer income tax assistance program in Waco, Texas, now in its 16th year. 

Students take IRS tests with a DPSCD screen saver on the computer screen in the foreground. Martin Luther King, Jr. Senior High School accounting-class students take their IRS Tax Preparers test, Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 5, 2020, as they will provide free tax preparation services to community members two nights a week at the high school from Feb. 10-April 2.

From the beginning, students were preparing taxes for adults. Soon, the students were preparing taxes for their own teachers. Last year, they trained college students at Baylor University to help them.

About 10 to 12 trainees from both groups volunteer every night the program is open. 

While the Waco program is a "total volunteer" effort, Holecek said, students in the Detroit program are paid an hourly wage. 

Thomas, of the Accounting Aid Society, said the goal is to keep 80% of the students engaged throughout tax season.

Holecek offered a word of advice as the Detroit pilot effort begins: "Really start small. Don't think you have to do 1,400 tax returns this year. Set your sights manageable for year one, because you want be able to grow."

To make an appointment, call (313) 510-9279.

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