Almost as soon as we turn the calendar to a new year, we begin hearing about deadlines, W-2s, and tax filing. It’s a reality of life and a reminder that being a citizen in this country comes with the responsibility of paying a portion of our income to local, state, and federal governments.
Every year, a group of Osborne students learn much more about taxes and tax preparation than even most adults know. The teaching team of Business Education Department Co-Chairs Michael Devault and Katy Hunt provide the course as part of the Business Education Department at the school. Each year, the class prepares hundreds of tax returns for community members as part of the IRS’s VITA Program. They have prepared over 4300 tax returns since 2003, saving taxpayers thousands of dollars in filing fees.
“VITA stands for Voluntary Income Tax Assistance, and it’s a program that the IRS has had for 40 years or so,” Mr. Devault said. “They have different tax centers in regions around the country, and metro Atlanta has about 20 to 25, and they’re all facilitated by the United Way of Greater Atlanta, but Osborne is the only high school in the state with a VITA program.”
The United Way gets grants from the IRS to run their various VITA locations around Atlanta, and Osborne’s program receives funding from them. This helps pay for supplies and equipment the students need and use to prepare and file over 300 tax returns every year.
A 26-year teaching veteran, Mr. Devault has been running a VITA program in Cobb Schools for 22 years: 14 years at Osborne and eight years before that at Oakwood (where Pearson Middle School is currently located). He noticed the need while at Oakwood and began helping students with their returns, and has been doing it ever since.
Before working on tax returns, the Osborne students must pass three IRS certification tests. All returns are then reviewed by staff before filing. Students also assist with appointment scheduling, translation, collection of documents, and records management.
“The first couple of weeks, they don’t even know what a tax return is,” said Business Ed Co-Chair Katy Hunt, “and they’re not always particularly interested in learning. Taxes? Boring! However, it doesn’t take long for them to grasp the concepts and feel like they really know what they’re doing. They end up having conversations with friends and family about taxes and how it impacts them.”
In addition to learning the ins and outs of tax laws and preparation, Osborne students in the Business Ed Department also create their own small business (Entrepreneurship) and receive training in using the Microsoft Office suite (Business Technology). It is a complete immersion in what it takes to succeed in business.
Besides gaining an understanding of tax codes and forms in their Accounting class, students learn customer service skills as they interact with and talk to individuals. For many years, the service was face-to-face and not much different than what you would find in an H&R Block or Liberty Tax office. During COVID, the tax service was modified to a drop-off with customers bringing their information to the school’s drive-through operation during appointed time slots.
“The interacting part can be intimidating for the kids, but it’s really the most important,” Mr. Devault said. “They learn to plug the numbers into the forms pretty quickly, but the customer service aspect is the best part of the whole experience for them, long-term.”
“We also do student and staff returns, so they need to interact with different groups of people, including the public. Students have told us that employers have been intrigued by this program and very interested when they see it on their resumes,” Mr. Devault said about the various benefits of the program.
“We help to fine-tune many of the highly desirable skills employers want, such as effective communication, attention to detail, and efficiency with accuracy,” agreed Ms. Hunt. “Students are encouraged to reflect on their own performance to make room for growth and improvement. Plus, they really do enjoy the experience.”
“It’s all about building confidence. It’s getting harder and harder to provide an experience that high school kids will fully engage in, but because we are truly running a small business, they can’t help but immerse themselves. This is an amazing program for our students because they are able to see the real-world application in real-time,” Ms. Hunt concluded about the Osborne program.