Little red schoolhouses dot the college map at Moraga's Campolindo High, each paper "school" adorned with a university name scrawled in a different senior's handwriting. But here and there a slip of paper proclaims only a place — Australia, for example, or Central America.

Not everyone goes off to the Big U after high school graduation. Some work, others join the military and an increasing number — more than a quarter-million, worldwide — are emulating the Brits, taking a "gap year" to travel or do community service, here or abroad. They're studying sharks off the Australian coast, building schools in Mexico and learning Punjabi or Italian.

The concept of a gap year may not be new, but the recent surge of interest most certainly is, says Campolindo college counselor Gwenly Carrel. Some students who spent the last four years in an intense college prep rush are deferring their admissions. Others, who didn't get into the college of their choice, are taking a year to explore new frontiers before reapplying.

"Students are choosing to take a breather, instead of just stepping onto the treadmill," says Carrel. "Kids are thinking, 'I'm not sure what I'm going to do.' They're going and exploring some of their interests. They're getting an experience they can take to the school they ultimately go to."

It's an idea actively encouraged by college administrators. A Lafayette honors student spent what would have been her freshman year in Italy with Stanford's blessing, says Rotary president Debbie Roessler, who oversees some of the programs that send Californians abroad and that brought 15 foreign students to the Bay Area for their gap years.

Princeton University just launched a "bridge year" initiative that will send 10 percent of its incoming class to do volunteer work abroad, starting in 2009. Princeton president Shirley Tilghman described it as "cleansing the palate of high school, giving them a year to regroup."

And Harvard not only offers deferments, but its admissions department has spent the last 30 years urging incoming students to take a gap year.

"Many speak of their year away as a 'life-altering' experience or a 'turning point,'" says Harvard admissions director Marlyn McGrath Lewis. "Many come to college with new visions of their academic plans, their extracurricular pursuits, the intangibles they hoped to gain in college, and the career possibilities they observed in their year away."

Some 50 to 70 Harvard freshmen take the gap option each year, but those numbers are likely to shoot upward, as Princeton's ideas sweep through the Ivy League and tap into an already fast-growing phenomenon.

Lonely Planet began publishing its first "Gap Year" handbooks in 2002. Consultants and travel companies are rushing to fill a market niche the Times of London estimates will reach $22 billion by 2010.

Gap travel experts used to attend college fairs. Now they're hosting their own gap year fairs — two last year, eight this winter, and the numbers should double next year, says David Denman, head of Sausalito-based Time Out Adventures and Sojourns Abroad.

The former headmaster and teacher — he taught at Danville's Athenian School — did his own gap year back in 1956, teaching in segregated Mississippi, an experience he says influenced his entire life.

"Overachievers benefit by being able to take a deep breath," says Denman. "The student who maybe has not done so well gets a chance to do something experiential that builds confidence. Students with helicopter parents can develop some autonomy before they go to college."

A large part of what's changed, says Carrel, is that gap years have become infinitely more structured, assuaging parental fears that their kid is hitting "pause on the DVD player of life."

"It's not just a kid hanging out for a year," she says. "It's an enrichment program for your child to grow and find what it is that really turns them on and what they ultimately may study."

Reach Jackie Burrell at jburrell@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Gap year
A sampling of gap year possibilities:
  • Leap now: A Calistoga-based program that includes life skills training, group travel in India or South America, and an independent internship; www.leapnow.org.
  • Time out adventures and sojourns abrOad: A three-month program that combines foreign language study, community service and cultural exploration in Europe; www.timeoutadventures.org.
  • ROTARY: Local Rotary clubs sponsor many year-long study abroad programs.
  • AMERICORPS: A national service organization, similar to a domestic Peace Corps, that places volunteers in teaching and community service positions; www.americorps.org.
  • Planet gap year: Online community offers resources and links to gap year programs and information on gap year fairs; www.planetgapyear.com.