Connor Cushman may have difficulty speaking clearly, but you can’t miss the meaning of his sweet smile.

And these days he smiles a lot.

Connor, who is 18, has Weaver syndrome, a congenital disorder that causes developmental delays. He’s been a student in the special education life skills class at Old Orchard Beach High School for the past two years.

Before that, he was in another school in another town. It wasn’t a good fit, his mother says.

“Instead of looking at his needs and developing a program, they just fit him into a program,” Angela Cushman says. “And that just didn’t work for Connor.”

She says Connor was so unhappy he started acting out in ways she and her husband had never seen before.

That behavior stopped the day he started school in Old Orchard Beach.

Connor likes to help. So Old Orchard Beach special education teacher Catherine Wood and ed tech Erin Dupee designed a program in which Connor learns by doing various jobs around the school, from recycling bottles to helping out in the laundry room. It keeps him busy and focused.

“They (teachers and support staff) go above and beyond,” says Angela Cushman, “way beyond. They take the time to know these kids and figure out what works for each one of them.”

If that means throwing the old rules out the window and trying something new, they’ve got the full support of school administrators.

At his former school, Connor was segregated from the “regular ed” kids.

Not here.

Just about every week he plays drums with band director Mark Manduca’s concert band. He also helps conduct the middle school band. And he’s front and center for every school assembly.

“It’s wonderful,” his mother says. “He comes home full of stories about school.”

So does Jonathan Raisen, 18, who is also in the special ed class at Old Orchard Beach High School.

His mother, Irene Eugen, says that when Jonathan was in elementary school in a different school system, school officials there were talking about institutionalizing him.

Then she heard about Old Orchard Beach.

“I had been in touch with the moms of Old Orchard,” Eugen says, “and they told me what I wanted to hear, … that there is something special about the special ed department.”

She, too, applauds the one-on-one attention and willingness to think out of the box.

But there’s another reason, Eugen says, that her son has blossomed.

“These kids have adopted Jonathan, truly just made him feel wanted and like he belongs,” she says.

Jonathan has lunch at the same table – with the same longtime friends, most of them seniors and athletes – just about every day.

“Jon always has a smile on his face,” says his tablemate Tyler Scott. “He’s always happy, and that sends us a good vibe.”

Jonathan has won the award for “best costume” at the school’s annual Island Day celebration, four years in a row. This year the senior class voted him “most likely to brighten your day.”

Irene Eugen has a special name for this place. She calls it “the little school with big heart.”

“The love Jonathan has been met with at this school, the unconditional love, is really rare,” she says.

Special ed teacher Catherine Wood, who has been teaching in Old Orchard Beach for four years, is still touched by the kindness of so many of the students.

“It’s a special thing that happens at this school,” Wood says. “Other teachers that I’ve talked with say it’s always been this way, that it’s just the culture of the town. It’s a small town.”

“You know what I tell people?” says the school’s principal, Rick DiFusco. “I tell them Old Orchard Beach schools are the best-kept secret in Maine.”

DiFusco is quick to admit that they’re not perfect, but he says they’ve sure got their priorities straight.

The importance of tolerance, respect and kindness, he says, is stressed from kindergarten on up. And those messages seem to stick.

Senior Zach Seamans, who has befriended both Connor and Jonathan, says it’s the older students who set the example from one year to the next.

“One of my buddies would always talk to Jon,” Seamans says, “always bring him napkins at lunch, … little things like that. I just picked up on it, and now I’m a senior and now I’m doing it.”

As Seamans and the other members of the Class of 2014 make their way into the world, Connor Cushman and Jonathan Raisen will stay behind a little longer.

And then they, too, will move on – ready to face that big world with confidence and self-respect.