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.

Bill Huelsman

Bill Huelsman

Director of Operations

Bill brings over 30 years of management experience ranging from executive suites, a technical school, photography and production companies and retail stores. He also brings many years of fundraising knowledge, organizing and running events for such charities as Gilda’s Club, Kids In Distress, Children’s Diagnostic, Kindred Pride, Deliver The Dream, The One Pulse Foundation and multiple LGBTQ Community Centers Florida. He grew up in a rural farming community in Ohio then made his way to sunny South Florida where he resided for nearly 40 years before moving to Atlanta for his “Second Act”. He enjoys the outdoors, walking 4 to 6 miles every day, going to the gym, paddle boarding and his dogs. Bill enjoys being part of the Hirsch team and has a passion for making a difference in the lives of children, families and the neurodivergent community.

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 Baskin
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 Hassan
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!
Sumaira Ladha
Sumi is originally from Chicago, Illinois, but has made Atlanta her home for the last several years. She was awarded a bachelor’s degree in English from Northwestern Illinois University in 2017, and a master’s degree in secondary education from Grand Canyon University in 2021. Sumi has a passion for working with students and has experience teaching in both early learning Carlisle Montessori classrooms as well as middle school classrooms of Druid Hills Middle. She is married, loves to travel and loves to spend a lot of time with her four legged friend named Mickey.
Christa Orbann
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!
Jalani Akeem Traxler
Jalani was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota at RiverSide hospital and grew up as an only child. Jalani is very close with his parents and is passionate about the respectful approaches they had in raising him: always including him in conversations, especially difficult ones that prioritized autonomy and respect. He took these lessons and applied them to his life and throughout the duration of high school and well into college. Psychology was his major at Morehouse College and then continued his education at Columbia Theological Seminary. Studying divinity and theology gave him insight into how people, organizations, and institutions seek to help societies’ most vulnerable people. He has taught in the public school system and also tutored children in all areas of content. He is seeking to serve the Hirsch Community and its children by offering his full intellectual, physical, and spiritual self.

Therapists & Specialists

David de Lima
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.
Jerry Zalnoski
Jerry became a part of the Hirsch family in 2015. He has over 20 years experience as an elementary school teacher with 10 of those years teaching at Atlanta’s Paideia School. Jerry studied art at the University of Florida and created the art program at Hirsch. He says: “The most important part of my job is to use art as a way to empower our students, I believe everyone can be an artist!” In addition to teaching, he adds support on the Friday hikes with Chris Zelski and is also a musician and songwriter with an award winning album of original children’s music. He has penned songs for his sister’s Summer Stage drama camp in Florida and loves playing live music around town.
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!

Educational Assistants

Kennedi Brown
Kennedi has been with Hirsch for over two years and is a master at regulating and supporting our students. She has also been a nanny with a family that she enjoys travelling with all over the world. Kennedi spends most of her time with the youngest students and has a special gift in supporting them.
Stephen Nesmith
Stephen was born and raised in Atlanta Georgia and received his Bachelors of Science in Recreation at Benedict College. While in high school and college he was a member of the marching band playing the trombone and a brother of Kappa Kappa Psi. He has always loved working with kids and it’s been his passion ever since he graduated high school. He has worked as a facilitator with neurodivergent students for Dekalb County schools for almost 5 years, supporting a variety of students and guiding them through their studies and daily tasks. Stephen loves music, sports, anything involving comics and has aspirations to get the training to someday be an educator.
Zak Sideris
Zak believes that the philosophies and beliefs at Hirsch Academy should be utilized in every classroom around the world. 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 his continued journey at Hirsch, with all of the students that teach him every day.

Support Teachers

Leigh McCune
Leigh is a Reading Specialist and additionally one of our substitutes 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.
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.


Ira Eidle
Ira is from Decatur and will be one of our Hirsch Interns. Ira holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Theatre and Performance Studies at Kennesaw State University and champions his own Autistic identity (Ira was diagnosed as Autistic at a very young age). Ira was involved in a cohort of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network’s 2020 Autism Campus Inclusion, on the board of Autistic Inclusive Meets USA (AIM, USA) and also started a student organization on his campus called Neurodivergent Advocates of Kennesaw that he led for a year. Ira has also done undergraduate research on disability and performance which he presented at the 2021 National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR). In his freetime, Ira likes to play video games and spend time with his dogs. Ira is a staunch proponent of the neurodiversity movement and believes that nobody is too disabled to live an autonomous life.

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.