ACE Charter High School teacher Tim Kennedy, right, arranged for two “Lost Boys” of Sudan to speak. The credit-recovery school has become less reliant on computer-based instruction in order to engage students more.

A few short years ago, water harvesting basins and aquaponics gardens would have had no place on the ACE Charter High School midtown campus.

That’s because students at the accelerated credit-recovery school spent their days in front of computers, completing assignments with little teacher intervention.

But the adoption of a new model in which teachers and students actually engage in learning together has changed all of that.

It has also changed academic achievement scores for the better.

In a three-year span, the percentage of ACE students passing the AIMS reading test increased by 10 points, writing was up six points, math jumped by four points, and science scores went from fewer than 5 percent passing to 17 percent.

While the school continues to employ computer-based learning, about 70 percent of a student’s time is now occupied by teachers like Tim Kennedy and Emily Ruddick, who embrace the chance to make learning relevant.

As part of a water conservation unit in Kennedy’s earth science class, students had the opportunity to help build water basins thanks to a grant from the Watershed Management Group.

While the basins help to beautify what has long been an unassuming building on Stone Avenue near Grant Road by harvesting rainwater to grow species of native trees and plants, the project has had a greater impact.

“This hands-on science project helped bring awareness of important environmental principles into our classroom, and we believe it will yield important results for broader community awareness,” said ACE Principal Jay Slauter.

More recently, Kennedy’s lesson about the struggles in South Sudan for clean water culminated with a visit from two “Lost Boys” of Sudan.

In Ruddick’s community and culture class, students assisted an aquaponics expert in the planning and construction of a system that uses fish, plants and water to create a sustainable, continual food source — a project made possible by a grant from the Deupree Family Foundation’s “Big Fish” fund.

Having traditionally served students who are behind on credits, Slauter acknowledges it was easier to quickly move students through a curriculum using computers and packets.

But that created challenges as far as knowing whether students were even doing the work themselves, and if they were, what they were gaining from it.

Backed by research showing the benefits of actively engaging students and a push from the Arizona Department of Education and the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools to do things differently, Slauter moved forward with the new approach.

“We did have students who had grown accustomed to the way things were and didn’t like the shift because they felt like it wasn’t credit recovery anymore,” Slauter said. “But those who were motived and serious still had the opportunity to do the credit recovery, but now they’re learning more.”

The new focus also helps achieve the school’s mission of not only educating students, but also preparing them for the workplace — something students have more success with when given the opportunity to work with others and think critically, said Arnold Palacios, executive director of Tucson Youth Development, which operates ACE.

Kennedy has found that his students have grown to like the direct instruction better.

“I really believe we are changing the paradigm of alternative education,” he said.

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at ahuicochea@tucson.com or 573-4175. On Twitter: @AlexisHuicochea