The Hirsch Academy Staff

Shelley Carnes, MS, OTR/L

Head of School, Founder

Shelley Carnes has over 25 years of experience in partnering with the autistic community. She is a licensed Occupational Therapist, an Expert DIR Floortime Provider and is one of the co-founders of The Hirsch Academy. Shelley has a Bachelors of Science in Rehabilitation Science from Auburn University and a Masters in Occupational Therapy from Brenau University. She is a passionate supporter and advocate for the neurodivergent community and is a voracious learner of what more can be done to support and empower the beliefs behind neurodiversity. Shelley loves being a wife and a mom to two kids and two furry animals. She loves playing and exploring outside, playing the piano and will dance any chance she can get.

Leslie Cotton-Smith, M.Ed.

Executive Director, Founder

Julie Carnes, MA, LPC

Clinical Director, Founder

Along with being a co-founder of The Hirsch Academy, Julie is our school’s Clinical Director. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor working primarily with preschool and elementary aged children and their parents using a DIR/Floortime approach. She offers individual counseling, parent coaching and paired play sessions in her private practice located at Floortime Atlanta. She also does school observations and consultations as well as supervision of beginning professional counselors.

Julie has a Bachelor’s degree from Mercer University in Special Education with a minor in Psychology, Montessori primary certification, and a Master’s in Psychology/Counseling from Goddard College. She was a Montessori teacher for 12 years and the Education Director for 10 years of a Montessori school serving over 300 children from preschool through middle school. Julie has led parenting classes for over 30 years. For the last 20 years, she has been coaching parents in the DIR model and is a member of the national DIR faculty. She has worked in the areas of bereavement in young children, social cognition, and peer mediation. She has provided workshops for parents and teachers on such topics as floortime, understanding learning variations, helping children with emotions and social cognition, and conflict resolution.

Laurie Cotton-Smith, OTR, MSW, MHP

Treasurer, Founder

Laurie Cotton-Smith helped found the Hirsch Academy for her 6-year old son who needed a school that could meet his sensory needs and different learning style. While simultaneously working in her chosen field of Historic Preservation, she took on the financial and HR duties at the school. She is presently retired from her preservation job, but continues to work closely with Hirsch staff and other members of the Board of Directors on the business management of the school. Laurie has degrees from Tufts University, New York University and Georgia State University. She enjoys spending time with her family and rowing on the Chattahoochee River.

Susie Mackler

Director of Operations

Susie was previously the office manager at Morningside Day Out preschool and before that worked in the non-profit fundraising community. Susie and her husband Andrew have three kids – Stella, 14, Meyer, 12 and Reuben, 10. They spend many weekends watching them play soccer, baseball, basketball, and tennis. Susie also loves to spend time at the beach and jog/walk around the Beltline and Piedmont Park.

Lead Teachers

Alex Zbeeb
Alex graduated from the University of Georgia in 1999 with a Bachelor of Science focused on Child and Family Development. She began her teaching career with Glynn County Schools where she taught in both a Special Education preschool program as well as an inclusion class for Georgia’s Pre-K. After four years, she returned to her hometown of Atlanta where she continued teaching Pre-K at a local private school, During that time, she also worked as a nanny for a former Hirsch student where she quickly fell in love with the approach Hirsch used in supporting its students both emotionally and academically. In 2008, Alex joined the staff at the Hirsch Academy where she maintains her position as a lead teacher. During her time at Hirsch, Alex has continued her education by retaining and intermediate certification in DIR/Floortime and piloted a year long parent participation class as well as the A.C.T.S. Training Course for the use and training of the letter board process.
Brittany Smith
Brittany graduated with her Bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education from Valdosta State University in 2010. She taught public school for two years, in addition to her Floortime/DIR training. She is also a graduate of the A.C.T.S. Training Course for the use and training of the letter board process. Brittany has been with Hirsch since 2014 and is currently a lead teacher. She gets the most joy in supporting meaningful relationships with her students and creating an environment that inspires an excitement to learn. Brittany also enjoys eating brunch with her husband on the weekends and traveling with her family as often as she can.
Jill Brownley
Jill is a graduate of Flagler College in St Augustine, Florida, where she received a dual Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education and Exceptional Student Education in 2006. After college she moved to New York City and taught at the Rebecca School. She began teaching at the Hirsch Academy in 2011. Jill has an intermediate level DIR/Floortime certification and has completed the A.C.T.S. training cohort with Elizabeth Vosseller. Other than teaching Jill loves to spend time with her family on the beach in Florida. She and her husband enjoy traveling, spending time outdoors with their dog Buster and trying new cuisines.
Kelci Sorenson
Kelci graduated with her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Kennesaw State University in 2015. Kelci has been with Hirsch since 2015 as a lead teacher after she was referred to Hirsch after working with a family who told her about their experience at Hirsch Academy where their son attended years prior. She decided that she had to see Hirsch for herself and this is where her journey began. She is an adventure seeker and loves to travel to new places. She considers herself a “come back” collegiate athlete who’s dusting off her old cleats for her home town softball league. Kelci is most passionate about empowering her students emotionally, socially, and academically. She is also a graduate of the A.C.T.S. Training Course for the use and training of the letter board process.
Susan Lisenby
Susan is a lifelong learner. She is a graduate of the University of Georgia, and Mercer University’s School of Law, with an added certification in Language Based Learning Disabilities. She is ACTS certified and working toward certification in FC with the Wellspring Guild. Susan helped develop Hirsch Academy’s Abbreviated Day Program, and has been its Lead Teacher since 2016. Following her interests in communication, she teaches Philosophy, Writing Groups and Critical Thinking. Susan is the proud mom of a college student, Bennett, and happy wife/reluctant golf partner to her favorite person, husband Steve. She is a beach girl, Pilates and walking devotee, book nerd, and music collector. Susan believes in hands-on learning, the immense value of mistakes and the importance of belonging.
Coach Chris
Coach Chris has been with Hirsch since 2016 as the lead movement specialist. Chris brings his background in Exercise Science in various camp settings and preschools to Hirsch Academy as our “Coach Chris”. He is a recent graduate from Georgia State and is eager to focus on the strengths of Hirsch students to get them excited to continue moving their bodies and fall more in love with exercise.

Assistant Teachers

Leighann Troino
Leighann graduated in 2015 from Georgia Gwinnett College with a Bachelor’s degree in Developmental Psychology. She began with Hirsch in our Internship Program during the 2015-2016 school year and has since become an assistance since fall of 2016. Leighann is a graduate of the A.C.T.S. Training Course for the use and training of the letter board process. She has a love for teaching students and ensuring they believe they are capable of anything. She also enjoys all things Disney, traveling, calligraphy, maintaining her small business and spending time with her husband and her favorite cat, Kit Kat.
Christa Orbann
Christa worked with children at a private school for many years while completing a Bachelors degree in Psychology and Human Service from Clayton State University. After working as a Judge’s Assistant for a couple of years, Christa quickly found her heart being pulled back towards serving those in need. She has spent the last year working as an Engagement Coordinator at an assisted living center and completing a certification in Yoga Therapy through The Center for Integrative Yoga Studies. She comes to Hirsch with an undeniable calling to work with children, helping and encouraging them in their growth! Outside of Hirsch Academy Christa’s pride and joy is a four year old German Shepherd named Zuko, who lives to brighten the day of anyone he sees! Taking note from Zuko, Christa is excited to be joinng Hirsch Academy as a source of light to all!
David de Lima
David de Lima is from São Paulo, Brazil and lived in Mexico before moving to Atlanta in 2011. He earned his degree from Universidade Nove de Julho, in São Paulo, Brazil. David is the founder of Capoeira Passo a Frente, a Brazilian Martial Arts academy in East Atlanta, is a Contra-Mestre and has been training capoeira for 22 years. He brings more than 10 years of teaching experience and is excited to join our Hirsch family as an assistant.
Zak Sideris
Zak recently joined the Hirsch team as a substitute teacher in 2018, and is now ecstatic to start as an Assistant Teacher! He firmly believes that the philosophies and beliefs at Hirsch Academy need to be utilized in EVERY classroom. Zak has wanted to work with children ever since he was one, and has made strides towards getting training and a degree in Early Childhood Development. Zak owns a mini zoo, his hair color changes bi-monthly, and he is an active member of The Arts. He prides himself in his passion for learning a new skill whether it be an instrument, a language, or both! He truly looks forward to the journey ahead with all of the children that teach him every day.
Jordan Wolfe
I am so honored for the opportunity to be apart of Hirsch Academy! I graduated from Auburn University with a bachelors degree in Rehabilitation and also am a board certified Occupational Therapy Assistant! I have been married for 7 wonderful years and have one dog named Radley! I am so honored to be a part of the innovative classrooms at The Hirsch Academy!

Therapists & Consultants

Jessisca Sibley
Jess graduated with a Master’s degree in Occupational Therapy from New York University in 2011. She has worked at the Hirsch Academy intermittently over the past 10 years and continues to thrive on the nurturing and inspiring environment that Hirsch has fostered. She specializes in thinking deeper in supporting students in developing a stronger sense of body awareness by integrating boot camp style exercise, as well as creating opportunities form students to learn and accomplish life skill goals they have set for themselves. Her Floortime training has helped her develop a strong relationship with her students while creating ways to teach skills that might otherwise deter children from trying.
Ivan Riobo
Ivan Riobo is an Affiliated Research Scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology within the Ubicomp Group at the College of Computing, whose research revolves around understanding how technology interacts and helps individuals with autism, their families and community around them in order to develop technologies that improve their quality of life while deepening our understanding of Autism in our daily lives. In his research field Ivan collaborates with the MIT Media Lab, Northeastern University, Emory University among many other universities. He has published in IMFAR (International Meeting for Autism Research), ITADS (Innovative Technologies for Autism Spectrum Disorders), UbiComp as well as other leading conferences in topics at the crossroads of autism and technology. He has lectured as main panelist and keynote speaker at the 2011 Annual ICDL / DIR Floortime conference, ITADS (Innovative Technologies for Autism Spectrum Disorders) and many other international conferences. He has studied both Economics and Business Administration, and earned his International Masters in Business Administration from the Scheller College of Business at Georgia Institute to Technology, ICN Ecole de Management (France) and ITBA (Institute Tecnologico Buenos Aires – Argentina). He also holds a Masters in Computer Science with a concentration in Human Centered Computing from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Ivan is also a parent of a child in the Autism Spectrum (ASD) and has been certified as a DIR Floortime therapist, among other certifications. He has been trained on a weekly basis for over a year to use letter boards which he uses with his son, and getting his Accessing Community Through Spelling (ACTS) certification this year.
Erin McAlister
Erin has spent countless hours in Hirsch classrooms as a teacher and volunteer, and is a master at writing lessons to support a variety of students’ different learning and communication needs. She now serves as Hirsch Academy’s Communication Specialist, conducting unique individual (or dyad) sessions that focus on building letter board skills, or “Spelling to Communicate”. Although Erin attended Southern Illinois University, she claims to be mostly ‘self-taught’. Her work history has included small business owner/entrepreneur, hairdresser, non-profit fundraiser, and has spent years living, diving, and working for Jimmy Buffett in the Florida Keys. Her biggest accomplishment so far has been raising her daughter Catherine, an unreliable speaker and 2017 graduate of Hirsch Academy. She is also a Founding Board Member of Connections School of Atlanta, a groundbreaking high school for neurodiverse students ages 14 – 23. New this year, Erin will lead Hirsch’s specialized support team (including those with expertise in fitness/movement, Floortime, Art and Creative Play) to enhance these experiences for our students who are non-speakers, low-speakers and unreliable speakers. Her group instruction will include teaching the recorder, chess, literature and advanced placement mathematics.
Leigh McCune
Leigh McCune is the Play Specialist at Hirsch Academy. She leads individual and group play sessions which incorporate mindfulness, relaxation, and self regulation strategies. She also teaches yoga and meditation to Hirsch students. Leigh strives to model and teach the qualities of self awareness, self acceptance and determination to discover and be our own best self. Leigh has a degree in Psychology from Louisiana State University and has made a lifelong study of human potential. Leigh is also an Orton Gillingham Reading Instructor, a Reiki master trainer, and a Laughter Yoga Instructor. Leigh’s other activities include reading (lots!), making body butter and soap, cooking, Atlanta foodie adventures, and hanging out with her grandson, Evan.
Whitney Pfohl
Whitney recently graduated with her Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at GA State. She was an intern at Hirsch during the 2017-2018 school year and the staff and students fell in love with her. She has a background working with children, particularly, those with mild-to-moderate learning disabilities and children who fall on the Autism spectrum.​​ She also has a strong background in cheerleading and has coached the past couple of years at Gymnastics and Cheer and hope to bring this enthusiasm and playfulness to Hirsch. As of 2018, Whitney will be with us as our new Floortime Player under the supervision of Julie Carnes.
Jerry Zalnoski
Jerry works with all the Hirsch students throughout the week bringing music and art to the classroom. He has combined his art school degree from the University of Florida, his independant record label / folk-rock music career, and 10 years of teaching at Atlanta’s Paideia school and brought it ALL to Hirsch as our Music and Art Specialist. He continues to be involved in songwriting and has a collection of original songs ready to be recorded for the next Jerry Zee CD. He says, “As long as I have an outlet for creativity, I feel like I’m doing what I came here to do.” Lucky us!
Kiersten Pierce
Kiersten is a recent graduate with her Master’s in Clinical Rehabilitation Counseling from GA State. Her past experiences include a B.S. in Health Administration from Auburn, and teaching Pre-K at First Baptist Church in Decatur. Kiersten’s passions are to work with children with disabilities and help them to overcome daily challenges. Kiersten is the mother of two children (ages 10 and 12). She has also been the PTA President at Westchester Elementary and PTA Vice-President at Claremont Elementary. Kiersten has been a volunteer, intern and very active within the Hirsch community for the last year and a half. She has recently started volunteering at Stride Ahead Equine Therapy. She truly enjoys the joy and purpose she has experienced with each of the Hirsch children. Kiersten will be Brittany’s assistant teacher next year.

Beyond Play

Katherine Shuey
Katherine Shuey is the Founder and Director of Beyond Play, an Atlanta-based organization dedicated to promoting access and advocacy for the disability community. Working in schools across Atlanta, Katherine and her team consult with teachers and families to provide accommodations, inclusion opportunities, and adaptive strategies for students with sensory, regulation, and motor differences.
Audrey Baskin
Hi, my name is Audrey Baskin. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY and moved to Atlanta 18 years ago. I am the mother of 3 beautiful children. I have a degree from Georgia Piedmont Technical College in Early Childhood Education and have been continuing my studies in Georgia Gwinnett College. I work with Beyond Play as a Communication and Regulation Specialist with children between 5 and 15 years old on the autism spectrum. I love working with children and being a part of the Beyond Play and Hirsch families!

Student Support Staff

River
River joined our Hirsch family in 2019 and is welcomed at Hirsch for her sweetness and cuddles. She enjoys playing with children, long walks, and belly rubs.