In 1959, Jean Doyle O’ Neill came to Lloydminster to start a school. It might not have been anything out of the ordinary had she come to work as a teacher in one of the public school district’s newer schools. But this wasn’t just another school; it was the start of a new era in Lloydminster for education for people with disabilities.
Mrs. O’Neill had been hired by the Lloydminster Retarded Children’s School Board, which had been formed in 1958 for the purpose of establishing a school in Lloydminster for students with mental disabilities. Born in 1924 in England, Jean and her husband Henry Edmund Doyle O’Neill immigrated to Canada in 1957. The couple first settled in Weirdale, a small town 70 km North of Prince Albert, before coming to Lone Rock in 1958, where Mr. O’Neill took a teaching position.
Jean O’ Neill had been persuaded by board member Hank Bestvater to offer her skills and compassion as a special education teacher in Lloydminster. It was agreed that she would be paid a salary of $300 a month and school would begin on February 2nd, 1959.
Jean had been an elementary school teacher in England before she had come to Canada. Fiona O’Neill, Jean’s daughter, describes her mother as a woman who greeted challenges enthusiastically and sought to be innovative as a teacher. At a time when few teachers sought such a position, Mrs. O’Neill would put her heart into her work at the "Lloydminster School for Retarded Children" which would be re-named Parkland School in 1966. "She always felt that there were a lot of things in these kids that could be brought out." remarks Joyce Kemp, who taught with O’Neill at the school for many years
In less than one year, the Lloydminster School for Retarded Children moved three times, but the one constant from the beginning was the teacher Mrs. O’Neill. O’Neill and Kemp offered a rich program which incorporated music, art, physical education, and the educational goals of teaching civic responsibility, human relationships, self-realization, and economic efficiency. A fabulous artist and painter, Jean shared her love for art with her students. Regular arts and craft sales were held which showcased student work. The community was often amazed at what the students had accomplished. With Joyce Kemp’s training in music and Jean O’Neill’s dedication, the students of the school were able to compete at a high level in local music festivals. Throughout the years awards and praise were handed to the students of the school. Every December, a large scale Christmas pageant was held which greatly pleased the parents of the children.
Jean Doyle O’Neill worked resolutely to give the students opportunities to help them build a sense of pride in themselves and their accomplishments. In June of 1966, a field day was organized for the students and the Saskatoon Star Phoenix took notice: "The field day was organized by the principal and senior room teacher, Mrs. Jean O’Neill, and the other teachers who believed the children should participate in the same activities as [other children] when possible." Prior to the establishment of the school, students with mental disabilities had little educational or social opportunity in Lloydminster. Public perceptions of people with disabilities were different at the time, and parents of children with mental disabilities may have felt pressure to keep their child secure from the outside world. O’Neill ignored public perceptions and took her students out into the community as often as she could, taking them to playgrounds, out for lunch, or to the gymnasium at the Lloydminster Composite High School twice a week for physical education.
There were difficulties. The initial budget for the school in 1959 was $4360, of which $3600 was reserved for Jean O’Neill’s salary. Still, O’Neill persisted, and made continuing requests for equipment, supplies, and additional funding." She had always insisted on having a kitchen in the school," notes her daughter Fiona. She believed in the importance of teaching the students life-skills to allow them to live independently in the future.
Jean and her family moved to Sardis, British Columbia in 1970, where she continued to teach students with disabilities at a special education elementary school, and eventually at a high school. After she retired, she pursued her artistic skills and taught a painting class at a community college. She was well loved by her students, and she kept in touch with many of them after her retirement, even employing some of them to do chores and odd jobs for her.
Jean Doyle O’Neill passed away in 1990. She was a true pioneer of special education in Lloydminster and Canada. Her life-long dedication to her work and her students will always be remembered.