Alphonse Davis doesn't seem to be the kind of guy who backs down from a challenge. In 27 years with the U.S. Marine Corps, he had served his country in various capacities around the world. But the call he received at the Pentagon in 1999 from his hometown of New Orleans dangled an unexpected challenge before him.

How would he like to run the New Orleans school system?

Technically, he didn't have the credentials for the job. He had two master's degrees and had run the Marines' officers candidate school, but he didn't have the educational certificates to be able to become a school superintendent. Community leaders eager to improve the struggling school district saw characteristics that mattered more than technical qualifications: a track record of leadership and capable management.

So the Orleans Parish School Board, after getting the Louisiana legislature to waive some requirements, hired Davis as chief executive officer of the 80,000-student district.

“They want change,” says Davis. “That's why they hired me.”

Davis is one of several people without experience in education management who have been lured into the field by the challenge of translating their management successes to the bureaucratic and tradition-bound world of school administration.

As school systems — especially large urban districts — struggle to improve academically and manage their facilities and finances more effectively, several have sought out leaders with business expertise outside the field of education. These newcomers to school administration have a varied background — law, finance, politics, military service — but in each case have demonstrated the talent for leadership that districts hope will translate into better-run schools and better-educated students.

“You have people around you who are experts on academics, operations, finance,” says Davis. “Your job is to kind of pull it all together. You have to do your homework and know exactly what you're getting into.”