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I agree with Byron that your sponge filter will be enough. Doing that and the AC is likely to be too much movement in the tank.

If you have root feeder type plants just get root tabs. Seachem and API both put out really nice ones. The Seachem though is a bit less messy if disturbed. However I have found API to do better for things like Crypts and Swords. They give mine so much more growth versus the Seachem.

You mentioned schooling fish. When you look at schooling fish that catch your eye be sure to research how active they are. Some schooling fish like to move about a whole lot more than others and as such require more space despite being small fish. There are several hardy variety of rasbora that fit what you are doing very nicely so that's one place to start. I kept Harlequin Rasbora for a good amount of time in a planted 20 gallon and they spawned regularly. However they may or may not be the right kind of color pop you are looking for.

This is a 20 long that I ran planted:

It had Eco Complete but you can get the same kind of growth using root tabs when necessary.
 

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I appreciate your input guys. I've very interested in Galaxy Rasboras, I think another name for them are celestial Danios. I also Like the loches, but I need to do some more research. I'm very excited to get home and start transferring the plants. I may stop by the pet store to grab some root tabs and take a look at the driftwood they have.

My Dad used to use plexi glass to hold back some gravel. He had 3 - 5 inch tiers in his 55 gallon. I would like something a little more natural looking though. I guess I'll have to play around. Maybe some sort of artificial barrier masked by some plants or something.
If you take a fancy to loaches be sure to research their maximum size. Small little ones like what you saw in that tank do okay for just a small bit of time. Those were waiting for the 80 gallon to be finished before being getting moved over. That particular species gets to 5" easily. There are a few species though that can do well in a 20 such as Kuhlis.
 
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