The Hirsch Academy Founders

Leslie Cotton-Smith

Leslie Cotton-Smith, M.Ed.

I am the mom of the amazing 6 year old who inspired the creation of Hirsch Academy – And it has been the most enlightening, joyous adventure!!!

I brought to Hirsch a BA in recreation and an MEd in counseling with years of experience in both. But bringing my love, passion, curiosity, respect and an open mind have been even more essential.

As our vision is to create an academic/social atmosphere. Everyone deserves to feel joyful about coming to school. Everyone deserves to feel safe, understood and respected, knowing everyone during the day is presuming that they are competent.

It remains an honor to know these amazing students who really are our teachers in many ways as they lead us all into our future.

Laurie Cotton Smith

Laurie Cotton-Smith, OTR, MSW, MHP


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 for the first 16 years of Hirsch’s journey! 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.

The Hirsch Academy Staff

Shelley Carnes, MS, OTR/L

Executive Director, Co-Founder

Shelley has over 25 years experience in partnering with the neurodivergent 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 (1996), a Masters in Occupational Therapy from Brenau University (2000) and is one of the I-ASC trainers for the ACTS certification program.

Shelley 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. She promotes international discussion, education and partnerships between The Hirsch Academy and self-advocates, families, professionals and educators within our community.

Shelley is also a wife and a mom of two children, enjoys playing and exploring outside, playing the piano and will dance any chance she can get.

Julie Carnes, MA, LPC


Along with being a co-founder of The Hirsch Academy, Julie 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 supports our Hirsch parents and staff on such topics as floortime, understanding learning variations, helping children with emotions and social cognition, and conflict resolution.

Jill Turner

Director of Operations

Jill Turner is currently completing her Doctorate in Occupational Therapy at Georgia State University. She has a Bachelors of Science in Speech-language pathology (2015), a Bachelors of Arts in Dance (2015) and a basic certification in DIR Floortime. Jill has spent the last 7 years working with and advocating alongside the neurodivergent community and also works as a dance teacher working with children 2 & up. She has also been a studio manager for her dance company for the past 3 years where she has been responsible for studio operations, HR management and bookkeeping. Her previous employment includes being a School Facilitator/Support Specialist and Speech-Language Pathology Assistant. She is excited to bring all of her expertise and experience into the role of Hirsch Academy’s Director of Operations position.

Susan Lisenby

Academic Coordinator/Communication Specialist

Susan is a graduate of the University of Georgia (1990), and the Mercer University School of Law (1993). She began her affiliation with The Hirsch Academy in 2013 and has never looked back. Prior to joining Hirsch, Susan obtained a post graduate certification in Dyslexia and Language Based Learning Disabilities as well as an Intermediate Certification in DIR/Floortime. After joining the Hirsch staff as a Lead Teacher in 2016, Susan added the I-ASC (ACTS) Certification for Spelling to Communicate as well as multiple trainings and mentorships in Facilitated Communication and coaching. When she is not interacting with students and their families, Susan loves to be outside! She enjoys hiking, walking, gardening, tennis or golf with friends, playing with her dogs and dancing on the patio with her husband and family.

Lead Teachers

Audrey was born in Brooklyn, New York and her parents are from Georgetown, Guyana. After moving to Atlanta with her husband to raise their three marvelous children, she received her studies in Early Childhood Education at Georgia Piedmont Technical College and is continuing her studies in Psychology from Kennesaw State University. She has terrific experience as a facilitator and associate teacher in a variety of school settings, providing accommodations, regulation and communication support and inclusive opportunities for neurodivergent students. She is skilled in diverse teaching modalities, communication supports, regulation techniques and is thrilled to share her knowledge and overflowing positivity with her students, families and the entire Hirsch team.
Dahabo graduated from Georgia State University with her Bachelors in Sociology and has been an educator for over 5 years. Communication has intrigued her for most of her life. Her early childhood was always spent moving from place to place due to her father being an Ethiopian ambassador. She was born in West Asia, and spent several years also in West Africa (Senegal). Along the way she’s picked up on several languages. English is her 3rd language, and was the absolute hardest to master as a child. She’s been a staunch community advocate for people whose first language isn’t English, and is excited to bring that same advocacy to the Hirsch team. Her favorite hobbies include reading and traveling. So far she’s traveled to 6 countries, but one of her life goals is to reach 20 countries!
Christa worked with children at a private school for many years while completing a Bachelor’s 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. This is when she decided to quit her job working for the government and spent a year working as an Engagement Coordinator at an assisted living center, while obtaining her certification in Yoga Therapy. Christa joined the Hirsch team in 2018 as assistant to the Fitness Specialist, and eventually grew her own program focused on teaching yoga and mindfulness to the students. She has an undeniable calling to work with individuals of all ages, helping and encouraging them in their personal growth! Outside of Hirsch Academy, Christa’s pride and joy is an incredibly joyful and playful German Shepherd named Zuko, who lives to brighten the day of anyone he sees! Taking note from Zuko, Christa’s calling is to help others recognize their inner Light and learn ways to allow this Light to shine bright for all to see!
Laura Geiss
Laura Geiss is originally from Melbourne, FL and her passion for working with children (and adults) with disabilities started over ten years ago within her work as a counselor at summer camps. She continued following this path within her studies at The University of Mississippi and graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Special Education. Laura has additional experience and certifications in the areas of: Mindset Training, Curriculum Adaptation and Teaching in Fundamental Subjects.
After moving to Atlanta two years ago with her husband, she focused her work within exceptional education in the public school setting and was especially drawn to students with learning, regulation and communication differences. Some of Laura’s favorite things to do around the city is walk the beltline and to try new restaurants.
Elizabeth Keller

Elizabeth was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She graduated from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago with a dual degree in TESOL and Bible Studies and has taught in the USA, China, Mexico, Russia, and Ecuador. She is also certified as a Trauma Informed Specialist. For a total of eleven years, Elizabeth has worked as an EFL teacher, learning support teacher, and core teacher with a variety of different grade levels.

As a late diagnosed autistic who loved learning but ended up falling through the cracks of the school system, Elizabeth deeply understands the importance of tailoring one’s educational approach to each individual student. She is passionate about fostering a love of learning in her students and is known for her creative, out-of-the-box approach to teaching. In her spare time, she enjoys writing and exploring the great outdoors with her dog, Jojo.

Therapists & Specialists

David 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 and fitness experience to the Hirsch students, with the focus on helping students build endurance, motor control and a love of fitness.
Chris Zelski
Chris has been with Hirsch since it’s founding year in 2004. He takes the students swimming one morning a week at the YMCA and hiking on Fridays. He strives to strengthen each child’s relationship with the world around them, as well as building their physical, social and emotional development and health. He wants Hirsch students to love movement, to feel empowered in their bodies, and more than anything, to have fun with movement! We are grateful to Chris for all that he brings to our students!
Leigh McCune
Leigh is a Reading Specialist and Art Specialist at The Hirsch Academy. 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. Leigh teaches reading and art classes at Hirsch.
Kiersten Pierce
Kiersten is a 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, teacher, play specialist, substitute and very active within the Hirsch community. She truly enjoys the joy and purpose she has experienced from each of the Hirsch children and being part of the Hirsch family.

Regulation and Academic Assistants

Kennedi Brown
Kennedi is a master at regulating and supporting our students. She intuitively understands what is needed to provide individualized access to classroom activities and is creative in her strategies for adapting the environment, information or the activity to meet the student’s regulation and communication needs. She has also been a nanny with a family that she enjoys traveling with all over the world. Kennedi has a special gift in supporting all of our students and supports multiple functions in a variety of classrooms at Hirsch.
Charisse Hughes

Charisse is a graduate of Syracuse University with a Sociology major, and Education Studies minor focused on Special Education. She continues her education at GA State University in the MACIE (Master of Arts in Creative and Innovative Education) program and is aiming at completion in the next two years.

Growing up in Atlanta since the age of four, Charisse had some exposure to the disability community through family and peers. At Syracuse University, this passion developed to be much more involved and impactful, as her studies forced her to look at her daily life more critically and realize much more can and should be done to bring about true equity within classrooms and society. Charisse loves to read, go on random adventures, travel, and try new foods. She is one of our Regulation and Academic Assistants and also part of our After School Program Team!

Gabrielle Wilchie

Gabrielle is a Memphis, Tennessee native and M.Ed candidate at Middle Tennessee State University, currently pursuing her Master’s in Curriculum and Instruction with a concentration in Teaching & Innovation. Her Bachelor Degree is in Exercise Science. Gabrielle comes to us with experience teaching children ages 5-14 years old, a mentor for The Boys and Girls Club and as a physical therapy technician in a PT clinic.

Gabrielle’s educational philosophy includes creating a safe environment for students to thrive in. Gabrielle is adventurous and loves to try new things and her hobbies include traveling, exercising, and cooking. Gabrielle is one of our Academic and Regulation Assistants and also a part of the After School Team!

Monica McClain

Monica McClain was born and raised in Huntsville, Alabama, is a passionate therapeutic foster parent and is a proud self-proclaimed “Quad-Level Mom” with her foster, adoptive, step, and biological children. Monica also has training and certifications in RBT and is a proud member of Kappa Delta Pi and NYAP, a National Youth Advocacy Program for foster children. She has a passion for education and inclusion in the learning environment having worked in public school and is eager to make a difference in the lives of her students at The Hirsch Academy. Monica is one of our Academic and Regulation Assistants and our Hirsch After School Coordinator! Outside of teaching and being a mom, Monica enjoys traveling, cooking, and solo trips to Target.

Student Support Staff

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.