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Spreading the spirit of aloha on the islands

by Andrea Bennett
Higher education helped Honolulu Chief of Police Louis Kealoha move up the ranks. (Photo/Courtesy of USC Rossier)
Higher education helped Honolulu Chief of Police Louis Kealoha move up the ranks. (Photo/Courtesy of USC Rossier)

Honolulu Chief of Police Louis Kealoha EdD ’06 embodies the vision at the USC Rossier School of Education that all students have the capacity to learn and succeed.

As a child, he said, he always started a new class with enthusiasm and the best intentions, but he continually found himself falling behind.

“That was my pattern through grade school and high school, and it shaped how I thought about myself and made me believe I was not the smartest guy,” recalled Kealoha, who now leads the 20th-largest police department in the United States. “That became the theme of my life.”

The Hawaiian native said his family didn’t pressure him or his brothers to excel in academics. His grandparents never went to school, his father had a sixth-grade education, and his mother was the first in the family to complete high school.

“When I was growing up, education wasn’t really important,” he said. “The emphasis at home was on being a good person.”

Shortly after graduating from Damien High School, Kealoha’s high school counselor advised, “If you don’t get off the island now, you’ll never get off this rock.” So, with little direction, he ventured to the East Coast.

In Virginia, Kealoha entered the FBI’s National Academy as a file clerk and found a field that piqued his interest. In 1983, he returned to the islands and joined the Honolulu Police Department. After five years on the job, he considered going back to school to move up the ranks.

“Nobody in my family was a supervisor of anything. We were all rank and file,” he said. “I thought it would be so cool to create a different path for my family.”

Kealoha said that his pursuit of additional education was different for him — he sharpened his goals and attempted to outwork everyone else.

It took 10 years, but Kealoha earned bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice and business administration. He then began a master’s program in criminal justice administration at Chaminade University, where he discovered there was a spectrum of learning styles.

“When I learned that students learn differently, it opened a whole new world for me,” Kealoha said. “I took these new theories and found my own individual learning signature, and it built my confidence.”

As a test, he applied them to his study for the lieutenant exam, and he passed on the first try. It was an unfamiliar feat that made him realize how the proper learning techniques can change lives.

“This got me really interested in education,” he said.

Armed with that knowledge, Kealoha launched a test preparation workshop for fellow officers in the department, where he taught study skills and various learning styles to grateful colleagues for the next 10 years. With his master’s degree and a newfound passion for the power of education, Kealoha began researching several EdD programs (“A doctorate was always on my bucket list”), and he found out about the acclaimed USC Rossier program. “If I was going to do it, I wanted to do it right.”

Responding to a growing need for leaders on the islands who could solve complex education problems, the school had begun offering its EdD program in Honolulu in the 1970s. Until 2011, USC Rossier’s program was the only doctorate in education offered to Honolulu residents, filling a critical void in the preparation of education leaders.

Kealoha’s first professor was William Tierney, who flew into Hickam Air Force Base to teach on the weekends along with other faculty members.

“All of the students said [Tierney’s] standards were really high, and I found out he is like a celebrity in his arena, so I was intimidated,” he recalled. “But as accomplished as he and the other professors were, they were all down to earth and sincere about helping me succeed.”

As Kealoha’s mentor, Tierney chaired his dissertation on nontraditional adult learning, which he defended in 2006.

In 2009, Kealoha’s hard-earned expertise landed him an appointment as chief of police, bypassing the traditional hierarchal path of advancing from captain to major to assistant chief.

“The Rossier EdD program has really impacted my life and just to be connected with USC is a dream,” Kealoha said. “I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would be able to go to a large research one university.

“At my graduation, everyone in my family was freaking out about actually being on the campus. But as big as the school was, there was a family mentality,” he added.

Kealoha continues to consider his former classmates “brothers and sisters,” and he enjoys connecting with fellow alumni in the wide-reaching Trojan network throughout Hawaii.

The alumnus said he applies the principles of educational leadership learned at USC Rossier to his role as manager of 2,100 police officers and 550 civilian staff who serve a population of 1 million people.

“As police chief, I want to create a climate where people are excited to come to work every day, and they feel they are doing something fulfilling and that they are appreciated and have a voice,” he said. “It’s the same principles you would use to manage a classroom of students.”

Kealoha, a married man with a 13-year-old daughter, said his department is also distinct from others because of its culture.

“No other police department mission statement in the world,” he said, “ends with ‘the spirit of aloha.’ ”

Kealoha follows a three-pronged philosophy as head of the Honolulu Police Department.

Mahalo is about appreciation, he said, and aloha is about putting ego aside and bringing people together.

“In Honolulu, everyone is family, and we’re so isolated. So in a natural disaster, we have to rely on each other and establish partnerships early on.”

Pono, he added, is about balance and doing the right things for the right reasons.

“The real reason I’m a police officer is to serve the community, and I look at it not as work but as a calling and a privilege.”

The early learning challenges Kealoha faced and overcame make him more passionate than ever about the mission of his alma mater.

“I believe in the values of USC Rossier, which is committed to equalizing opportunities and closing the gaps between the haves and have-nots,” he said. “And education is the key because from the womb to your death, you’re always learning.”

Kealoha, whose own educational and professional accomplishments exceeded his youthful expectations, said he is excited about the transformative leaders the school is producing.

“The students of USC Rossier can make a real difference in the world,” he said. “You don’t have this degree to put on a wall and not do anything with it. You have it to use it and share it with the world.”

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