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.
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 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 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.

Jasmine was born and raised in Decatur, Georgia. She received her BSA degree from the University of Georgia (2011) and earned her MS degree from Georgia College and State University (2014). Her son’s autism diagnosis led her to create her own homeschooling classroom at home and the progress she observed motivated her to extend her studies with a MA and an Autism Certificate Program at Ball State University (2021). Jasmine has experience teaching in classrooms while her husband was stationed in Okinawa, Japan and when she studied abroad in Costa Rica. In the most recent years, Jasmine has been a substitute teacher for The Hirsch Academy and other neighboring schools in all the varied lead and assistant roles which drove her desire and eagerness to be part of the Hirsch team. Jasmine is happily married with two children and enjoys SciFi movies, reading, and having fun with her family and two dogs. Her passion, unique perspective, skillset, and traveling background bring Social Studies to life and bring out the best in our students!

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 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 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 is a graduate of Syracuse University with a  Sociology major, and Education Studies minor focused on Special Education and is continuing her education at GA State University in the MACIE (Master of Arts in Creative and Innovative Education). 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. She has worked with children of varying ages, from camp counselor to nanny, and has teaching experience in inclusive classrooms. She loves to read, go on random adventures, travel, and try new foods. Charisse is excited to join Hirsch for her second year and also continuing as coordinating the After School Program team.
Carla Byrd is a tea sipping artsy soul who was born and raised in the DC area but has recently made Atlanta home. She studied graphic design but was led to follow her calling for more hands-on visual arts such as painting and sculpture. Along with curating art events, she has been teaching and sharing creativity with children in schools, community art centers and privately for the past 7 years throughout DC, NYC, and now Atlanta. This experience has included her being graced by the presence of neurodivergent students in her classes. Through giving more individualized attention, she has formed deeper understanding, endearing attachments and a love for these children, leading her to feel drawn to the Hirsch Academy. Inspired by all things playful yet laced with qualities of strength, Carla focusses on interconnectedness, nature, and connection.

Primruth (Prim) is from Uganda, Africa and came to America when she was 12 years old. She went to Truett McConnell University for her Bachelor’s degree in Healthcare Administration and is now working on completing her Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. We are delighted to have Prim in the role of Academic and Regulation Assistant as well as part of the After School Program team. 

Margo graduated with a B.A. from Louisiana State University and proceeded to build a career in the Entertainment and Television Industry. She is a firm believer that movement is essential practice for physical and mental well-being. Throughout her career, she was a long-time substitute for Atlanta Public Schools and has mentored many students. Driven by a genuine love for children, Margo is passionate about fostering the growth and development of each student. Outside of work, she has an 11-year-old son, loves going to book clubs, and is an avid traveler.

Student Support Staff

Pioneering The Hirsch Academy as its first student, Ian and his parents have been trailblazers for the neurodivergent community, helping to create The Hirsch Academy. Post-graduation, Ian remains closely involved, contributing to the outdoor adventure program, recess activities, and executing handyman repairs on campus. Beyond Hirsch Academy, Ian enjoys blacksmithing, woodworking, and golf. Additionally, he co-owns Hotlanta Hot Sauce, a thriving Atlanta-based business.

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.